February 2022: It was a real treat for me to have the opportunity to talk about Goran Ivanišević, the state of Yugoslav tennis before the breakup of the country in the early 1990s, and what the big-serving Croat brings to Team Djoković with Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract. Listen here.
January 2022: Thought I made several appearances on BBC Radio during Novak’s Australian saga, they seem not to have permalinks for programs over a month old. So, the only segment I can share from the complicated lead-up to the 2022 Australian Open is this one on Melbourne’s ABC radio: “Decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa sparks anger in Serbia.” Listen here.
May 2021: “All About Novak Djoković.” One of these things is not like the other: Niki Pilić, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanišević, and I were guests for an hour-long BBC 5 Live Sport discussion of the ATP #1.
July 2020: Carl Bialik invited me on to Thirty Love, his short-form podcast, to discuss Novak Djoković and the Adria Tour. Much of our conversation relates to my tennis journalism hobby-horse: shortcomings of the Anglophone-dominated international media in covering players whose native language isn’t English. Listen here.
The night before his quarterfinal match in Dubai, Djoković sat down with veteran Serbian sports journalist Nebojša Višković in the garden outside a tent housing the player gym. “Viško,” as he’s known to colleagues and Sport Klub viewers, has covered Novak since he was a promising junior—and they have a friendly rapport rooted in obviously-mutual respect. Indeed, were it not for this longstanding relationship, it’s unlikely Sport Klub would have gotten this time with the then-ATP #1. To my knowledge, Novak did no other one-on-one interviews during his first event of the season, and the three Serbian print reporters in attendance got one native-language question each per press conference.* At the start of their chat, Višković semi-jokingly observed that talking with Novak had become “a journalist’s toughest-possible task.”
In addition to providing match analysis from SK’s Belgrade studios and conducting post-match interviews at the handful of tournaments he attends each year, Višković co-hosts a weekly tennis podcast called “Wish and Go” with fellow commentator Ivan Govedarica. In that format, which they started using during the pandemic, the pair have interviewed not only every top Serbian player and plenty of local tennis insiders but also a bunch of other ATP and WTA athletes from the region (e.g., Croatia’s Borna Ćorić and doubles team Mektić and Pavić, Montenegro’s Danka Kovinić, and Bosnia’s Damir Džumhur). The conversations are quite long for today’s media climate—often running over an hour—and substantive, with hosts well-versed in both the history of the sport and the intricacies of the game. Govedarica, once a junior player, was a tennis coach and an official before he turned to broadcasting; Višković, who also coached in his twenties, is father to a current Serbian junior; and both men play tennis regularly (their on-court rivalry is one of the podcast’s running themes). Whenever I watch the show on YouTube, I lament the fact that episodes don’t have subtitles making them accessible to the wider tennis world. Until there’s a reliable transcription app for Serbian, though, I understand why this is too much work for anyone to take on in addition to the rest of his/her professional responsibilities.
This SK interview, however, is short enough to be manageable. Here’s my translation of the full interview, with occasional, hopefully clarifying, additions in brackets. Please note: I produced this translation before “Wish and Go” made a subtitled version of the interview available on YouTube (today!) and I decided to post my work, regardless, because it allows me to both introduce and comment on the Q&A content.
NV: “It seems to me that something like this is perhaps easier in Dubai. Even with all the protocol, it’s more relaxed.”
NĐ: “Well, yes, the atmosphere is different here, a bit more pleasant and less formal than at the Grand Slams and some other tournaments where you’ve been. You’ve been involved in tennis all these years and we know each other, of course; that relationship is why I wanted to do this. Plus, you’re the only representative here from Serbian tv. So, thanks for coming.”
NV: “We won’t talk about Australia, because that story’s passé and you’re sick of it, I’m sick of it, everybody’s sick of talking about it.”
NĐ: “Thanks.” [laughing]
NV: “But I will have a few questions that aren’t ‘tra la la,’ just so you know.”
NV: “Just tell me: have you put a period on that episode—Australia, full stop, turn the page, done?”
NĐ: “You know, I can’t completely erase everything that happened from my memory. And everything is so fresh. There have been some other things in my life —whether tied to tennis or not— that shook me, emotionally, that I couldn’t forget, let alone something like this. This really was unprecedented in every sense, in terms of everything I’ve experienced in my professional career and in my life overall.
But I can accept that it is as it is—and move on. What you’ll certainly not see or hear from me is that I’m running away from responsibility or from answering anyone’s questions. I have nothing to hide; I’m not avoiding anyone; and I’m here [i.e., available]. I also invited the BBC, who weren’t always friendly to me as global media. They came to Belgrade—and I thank them for that. They allowed me to say, for an international audience, what I had to say. We agreed to whatever questions they asked. They broadcast half an hour, but we talked for almost an hour and a half; so, there was a lot…”
NV: “If I could interrupt—why’d you invite the BBC [specifically]?”
NĐ: “Well, precisely because if I’d invited someone with whom I have a better relationship, then people would say, ‘Eh, here he is, setting up an interview so that they don’t ask him anything [because] they’re inclined toward him,’ like they may’ve said about RTS. Of course, it’s logical to expect that when I talk to the national broadcaster of Serbia, or someone from international media who’s been more sympathetic toward me over the course of my career—and people who follow tennis know who’s more sympathetic and who isn’t—then, some would think, ‘Here he is, running from uncomfortable situations; so, he’s hiding something and doesn’t want them to ask anything awkward.’
That’s absolutely the biggest reason I called them: I really wanted those who’ve criticized me a lot to come and ask me anything they thought was necessary to ask. And, of course, because they’re one of the world’s biggest media, with over half a billion viewers, I’d have the opportunity to speak to the world.”
NV: “They didn’t just criticize you—they dragged you in the worst way.** I gave a couple of interviews to the BBC and fought for you. I’m glad that you mentioned at the beginning how long we’ve known each other… But I was sorry when I saw that you chose the BBC—this isn’t a lament, like ‘Why not me?’”
NĐ: “For what reason?”
NV: “Because we defended you during the whole Australian [episode] and then you suddenly give an interview to the very people…”
NĐ: “That’s it, though. Simply: to those who criticized me the most, come and you’re welcome to ask me whatever you want…. I had absolutely no influence on the questions they raised. We only wished for it to be in Belgrade, if possible, because I was training there, getting ready for Dubai. They accepted, came, and were very nice, polite, neutral, and firm—in the sense that, ‘Ok, we’ll ask everything that hasn’t yet been addressed from your side.’ No problem. I’m sorry they didn’t broadcast some things…”
NV: “They cut a lot.”
NĐ: “Of course, I know that they had to make cuts to fit the time slot they had, but…”
NV: “They cut what didn’t suit them.”
NĐ: “Well, that’s how it is. But, to repeat: I run from no one and nothing.”
NV: “Politics shouldn’t interfere with sports, but sports should influence politics—at least, that’s how I see it. Because there are many good things…”
NĐ: “For me, sports—excuse me for interrupting—has always been above politics. Even if, perhaps, some people who aren’t well-versed in the situation or who don’t necessarily follow tennis much think I politicized this whole thing, that I deliberately intended to enter the country by force or to attract attention to myself and somehow distract from other tennis players…”
NV: “Don’t go back over all that—we know, all of it’s clear…”
NĐ: “No, no, no—but it matters in the context of all this. Because some people think I went more into politics than sports. Just the opposite: I went because I’m an athlete and that’s the place where I’ve achieved my best results. And because I wanted to respect my colleagues, I didn’t explain or respond to all the questions until [the Australian Open] was finished. The other side, so to say, didn’t hesitate to speak in public, and it went the way it went: a very ugly picture of me was created. They really humiliated me, if I may say so, on the world stage.
And that’s why it’s very important, when I get the opportunity, and if someone asks, that I answer questions. I’ll probably repeat the same responses that I gave to the BBC because I don’t have anything else to add, especially in terms of questions about things like the [COVID] tests—I’m neither an IT expert nor do I understand how those tests are processed and registered. I mean, that’s not on me.
I did everything that was required of me and was in the same position as any other tennis player—which is very important since I see there’s some belief that I was privileged or used my position to get that [medical exemption] status due to who I am. But everyone had the same opportunity [to apply] for an exemption. Since I see that the BBC cut this, it’s important that I say it and that people hear it. So, I’ll repeat this a hundred times like a parrot: when I arrived in Australia, a WTA player from the Czech Republic and an ATP coach from Croatia with the exact same exemption—in the same situation, with the same vaccination status as I have—had already been there for days. She played in a tournament, he coached his player in a different tournament and there was no problem. Suddenly, I get there and it’s a problem. Why is that? You tell me, because I’m stopping there. ”
NV: “I said I wasn’t going to ask about Australia…” [laughing]
[The body language from 7:50-7:58 is universal, so I suggest watching it yourself.]
NĐ: “What’d you want to ask me?” [laughing]
NV: “Listen, what you’re saying is clear to everyone. It’s not [clear] only to those who won’t use their brains and don’t want to [understand], and that’s that.”
NĐ: “But Viško, it’s important for me to repeat it, not only for our people and those from the Balkans but because I know that some international media will pick this up. It’s important to say it and I hope that some people will write about this situation.
So, you tell me: is it political or is it not? If I enter, I’m a problem; but two people who entered before me with the identical situation had no problem at all?”
NV: “It’s 100% political and that’s totally clear. But, unfortunately, politics and your career are intertwined nonstop. You just had a meeting with the president of Serbia which provoked a lot of comments, upheavals, emotion, and so on.”
NĐ: “I’m aware of that. I saw that people think that I now support the president or his political party in their re-election campaign. There’s been a bunch of speculation on that topic, condemnation. I’ve become accustomed, in this period [presumably, during the pandemic], to condemnation from the international media; and now, likely because of such situations, also some domestic ones. However, I have to thank the majority of our national media, who were with me [during the Australian episode]. The nation stood with me—so, from my heart, thanks to all Serbs around the world. I felt the support, listened to the recordings, and saw the people who met me at the airport, the messages on the Belgrade waterfront tower. It was fantastic, really, and I have to mention it because I feel an [emotional] obligation.
I went to see the president because I wanted to thank the man, as the leader of our country, who stood up for me as a statesman in public, just as the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, did.*** Also, the Institute for Public Health “Batut” didn’t stand up for me, specifically, but they came out with a public statement that there was no problem with my test results. That meant a lot to me because Der Spiegel, and others who got into the investigation, picked on [the results] and thought that I was somehow cheating on them. [The IOPHOS] said, ‘Here you go: everything is perfectly clean.’
So, I went to the president as a Serbian citizen, as an athlete, as someone who felt that support. And I wanted to thank him—and to do it publicly because he deserved it, as did everyone who stood by me. I’m not getting involved in any kind of politics or any election campaigns—it’s never a good time for that. I haven’t done that before, even though I received recognition from the former president and I’ve been in the National Assembly. I’ve always tried to keep my distance from the political sphere, and [related] stories and currents. When I went to do it, I knew that people would talk about it. Like I said, it’s always a bad time to do it—there’s always a campaign; there’s always something. But I wasn’t thinking about that.”
NV: “It’s the spot [i.e., a political ad] that caused the most uproar.”
NĐ: “What spot?”
NV: “The ruling party’s [campaign] video. You appear in it—that’s actually the biggest reason…”
NĐ: “Honestly, I haven’t seen it. I heard… I only saw a video on Instagram of our meeting that [the president] posted. There was no mention of the Progressive party.”
NĐ: “I didn’t see anything with a logo on it or tied to the Serbian Progressive Party. What I saw was just an edited version of our meeting that day. For me, that was… Again, people will always look for a needle in a haystack and try to take anything they don’t like and make it into something that [supports] their side.
But if we want to look at it that way, I went ‘against’ both his party and the state when I supported the [environmental] protests. In the end, as I told him and everyone else, that had nothing to do with politics. I didn’t get involved in the negotiations or agreement between Rio Tinto and the state—I was supporting my people, who took to the streets to fight for cleaner air, water, and food. Those are elementary things and not tied to politics. It’s a problem that dates back 15, 20, 30 years. We have a problem with pollution in Belgrade and it has nothing to do with any [specific] government. I mean, it does—every government is responsible for [things like] that. And that’s why I did it [i.e., posted on Instagram about the protests]—it has nothing to do with politics.”
NV: “Nole, thank you for being forthright. You’re open to the core, as always, and that always…”
NĐ: “Well, yes, it’s honest… Viško, look: I have nothing to hide. Of course, I know that I sometimes need to “filter” things. But the truth is the truth, and my position is my position. I know that people will continue to criticize me because I decided not to get vaccinated and because I have some views that are incomprehensible to people. I respect everyone’s decision and I hope that people, even if they don’t understand, will at least respect mine. I don’t think I’m endangering anyone. It’s my decision, I’m aware of the consequences, and it’s not in my hands. It’s not entirely up to me whether I will go to Indian Wells or to some other tournaments.
At the moment, I’m here [in Dubai] and I’m enjoying tennis. I’m grateful and proud of everything that I’ve achieved. And this sport has given me so much, I’m trying to give back to the same extent. It’ll always be the case that some people don’t like me or criticize me for this or that. Sorry, because you’re part of that world, but the media often live off sensationalism—many in media, not all.”
NV: “Do you differentiate?”
NĐ: “You’ll agree, that’s how it is. Of course, I differentiate—I mean, I’m talking to you because I know you’re not like that.”
* Note 1: Despite my “mixed” ancestry and the fact that I was in Dubai representing my blog, not a Serbian outlet, I include myself in this category. Frankly, it was a long way for me to go to get in my allotted three questions and the limitations put on us by the ATP is something I’ll have to weigh in making future plans for tennis travel.
** Note 2: I was also invited on BBC Radio before, during, and after the 2022 Australian saga and generally found the program hosts, in addition to their tennis correspondent Russell Fuller, to be quite fair. Given that the BBC is a huge media organization comprising print, radio, and tv services, there are a range of sports journalists and commentators who have covered Djoković over the years. So, I think it’s possible that “BBC” is standing in not only for some specific individuals who work for the UK’s national broadcaster but also for the whole of British sports media, who have been rough on Djoković, particularly between 2011 and 2017, when he and Andy Murray were competing regularly for major titles. Having said that, it is the case that a BBC article was cited by the Australian government in making their case that Djoković may, by his mere presence in Melbourne, galvanize anti-vaccine sentiment. As I noted on Twitter at the time, almost all international reporting on Novak’s vaccination-related views has been based on a problematic translation of comments he made in April 2020.
*** Note 3: I couldn’t help but notice that while Novak mentioned the Serbian PM by name, neither he nor Višković ever referred directly to President Aleksandar Vučić. Of course, I have no idea how conscious or deliberate this was on either man’s part—so, it may not be terribly significant. This would probably be a good time to clarify that the Serbian Progressive Party is not what most would consider ideologically “progressive.”