Why Novak Djoković Matters

This piece from August 2011 is the first thing I ever wrote about tennis—and it’s not even about tennis in the traditional sense.  It was addressed, initially, to a broad American audience, not necessarily tennis fans.  However, as I hope is obvious, the message is meant for anyone without ties to the former Yugoslavia.  What inspired me to post it today is Steve Tignor’s discussion of what distinguishes the fans of tennis’s “Big Three.”  Specifically, I wanted to add a few words about why Djoković’s “strong Serbian following” consists of lots of people who are either relatively new to tennis or not fans of the sport at all.  If, after reading this, you care to hear more on the subject, check out the initial post on this site or the article I wrote for the Tennis Space on what turns out to have been the last Serbia Open.

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Picture this: you’re flipping channels after midnight on a Tuesday.  Suddenly, you come across Jay Leno and Katie Holmes dancing a little jig with a bunch of people in funny outfits.  You pause, bemused.  What are they doing—and who’s that with them?

I can imagine the Tonight Show producers were thinking a couple of things when lining Novak Djoković up for an early August guest spot.  First, it’s the dog days of summer, so viewers will be happy not to be watching a re-run.  Second, Djoković is an attractive, charismatic guy who happens to be having an incredible year, winning his first Wimbledon title and achieving his goal of becoming the #1 men’s tennis player in the world in the same July weekend.

But let’s face it, Djoković still may not pass the “who cares?” threshold for most of Leno’s audience.  Sure, he’s an international sports star on a record-breaking run, but since when do Americans give a damn about tennis players—and foreign ones, with hard-to-pronounce names, at that?  Andy Roddick, the closest thing U.S. men’s tennis has to a household name, recently tweeted after a guy serving him in Panera innocently inquired, “Does someone in your group work for Lacoste?”

So, as a guest on Leno, Nole (pronounced “Noh-leh”), as he is known to friends & fans, faced a hurdle.  Add to the basic one—the marginal status of tennis in the US sports & entertainment industry—the fact that Djoković hails from Serbia.  The obstacle here isn’t simply that most Americans don’t know anything about this small, south-eastern European nation.  It’s that what they do know is likely extremely negative—based on nearly two decades in which Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia to which it once belonged, was associated with little more than ethnic conflict, war, and political corruption.  Before Djoković, the three most “famous” Serbs were strongman Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (all three of whom ended up in the UN’s war crimes tribunal in the Hague)—not exactly the type of guys who get invited onto the Tonight Show.

Djoković matters—not simply to Leno’s viewers but in a larger sense—for three reasons.  This year, he’s a been a major story, both on the men’s tennis tour (where his record now stands at a remarkable 61-2) and in the world of sports more generally: a May Sports Illustrated cover banner proclaimed him the “most dominant athlete in the world.”  He’s also a big deal because he’s the first player to break the duopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have had on the #1 spot for an incredible seven years.  In the long run, of course, it remains to be seen what kind of name Djoković will make for himself—or where he will rank in the history of men’s tennis.  For now, though, he’s on top—and showing little sign of letting up.

Ultimately, Djoković may matter most not as a tennis player but as a cultural figure: a global ambassador for a young nation with a lot to prove.  Serbia has only existed in its current form, as an independent country, since 2006—not incidentally, the same year a nineteen-year-old Djoković broke into the ATP top 20.  In the five subsequent years, Djoković (and, to a lesser degree, his 2010 championship Davis Cup teammates, all of whom were granted diplomatic passports in April) has quickly become Serbia’s top export and most reliable salesman.  While he normally represents his nation in Olympic and Davis Cup competition, you can now add late-night television to his list of venues.  There, he not only talked to Leno about tennis and his love for karaoke but also brought along a troupe of costumed Serbian folk dancers—with whom he proceeded to dance a traditional kolo (or “round”).  “The Djoker” even managed to charm both his host and Tom Cruise’s wife into joining him on the dance floor.  If nothing else, these moves should make it clear that there’s a lot more at stake here than selling a bunch of “Novak” t-shirts or US Open tickets to American consumers.

Novak Djoković and the Burden of Serbia

English: Novak Djokovic was interviewed after ...

Novak Djoković after winning a mixed doubles match with Ana Ivanović in the 2011 Hopman Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Preface:
This essay was written over several days last week, in response to a new-media dustup that followed a tweet by Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim: “Have been debating whether to tweet this, but here comes quite an indictment of #djokovic http://tinyurl.com/l46nnbg; happy to link a rebuttal.”

My response to Wertheim began its life as a tweet, grew into a note, and graduated as a long letter, which I sent to him over e-mail.  Though there are a variety of reasons I chose him, rather than the blogger, as my primary—my first, if not my most important—interlocutor, I’ll name just one: these issues are contentious enough without making them personal.  No individual is responsible for creating the messy political situation that still exists in the Balkans; and no individual is alone in having incomplete, uninformed, &/or problematic views on the subject.  To me, this is not a time for the type of debate in which the main goal is to score points—to win—rather than to work, collectively, toward understanding.  Neither I nor the original blogger, Jon Wertheim, anyone reading this, or Novak Djoković himself is in a position to single-handedly solve a problem as complex as the conflict over Kosovo’s independence.  Together, however, there are a few things we can do—and keep doing.  Those include thinking, reading, writing, sharing our views, and engaging in civilized (and, yes, I use that word advisedly) conversation with others.

First and foremost, then, I am interested in dialogue.  However, this priority doesn’t mean that I’m not making an argument here.  Rather, it’s meant to emphasize my firm belief that there’s a big difference between making an argument and having one.  And, to the extent that I am writing to make an argument (and not to have one with either Wertheim or any individual blogger), part of my point is about argument itself.  Who’s already guessed that I’m a teacher?  Come on, raise your hands. . .  Good.  I’ll make a point of toasting you the next time I have something other than Earl Grey in my cup.

To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge some of my own teachers.  To that end, I’ve scattered a handful of references to true experts on the subjects I discuss here.  Also, I should note that my views on writing have taken shape over approximately 30 years of being—alternately and simultaneously—a student and teacher, a reader and writer.  One huge influence on my thinking about both writing and the teaching of writing was Greg Colomb, director of the Writing Program at the University of Virginia, who sadly passed away a few months ago.  If anyone is looking for a great book on the subject, I would highly recommend his and Joseph Williams’ The Craft of Argument (of which there are several editions).

On the off, off chance that it’s not obvious merely from the number of words here, let me make it so: I take both the form and the content of this argument very seriously.  This is not only—or even mostly—because I take myself seriously.  Of course, I do that, too: it’s an occupational hazard of being a professor, I’m afraid.  (Though I’m also glad to laugh at myself: for instance, at the fact that I haven’t showered or changed out of my bathrobe for three days because I’ve been too busy writing this.)  I take what I’m saying here seriously because this is a very, very difficult subject about which to have substantive discussion.  Here’s another thing that likely goes without saying: while I certainly don’t expect anyone to read this entire piece or to take it as seriously as I do (other than my family, who loves me!), I hope that anyone who decides to read and comment will keep the sensitivity of the issues we’re discussing in mind.

Given this sensitivity, I want to put the following caveat up front: I am no apologist for a single one of the many horrific crimes committed—by any group—in the former Yugoslavia or the current Republic of Serbia over the past two decades.  There is no denying that these things happened and no number of apologies that could undo their damage after the fact (which is not to say that no one should make apologies).  Nor, because I am half-Serbian, do I feel any particular need or desire to defend or diminish criminal, unethical, or even morally & politically ambiguous acts by any Serb—any more than I would, because I am a US citizen by birth, defend an act by my own government or a group of Americans which I not only disagreed with but also found destabilizing of my faith in humanity.  (If you doubt this, I’d be glad to send you video footage of the fights that took place in my parents’ home during the 1990s.  Actually, and perhaps unfortunately for my current purposes, no such documentation exists.  But if you’re still uncertain about whether to take my word that plenty of Serbs had and have disagreements on these issues, I invite you to attend a dinner party in virtually any home in the Yugoslav diaspora, to raise the issue in a Belgrade café, or, indeed, to read the article linked at the very end of this missive.)  Thus, what follows should by no means be taken as an attempt to defend Novak Djoković from legitimate criticism.  Everyone is open to that; nobody is free from the consequences of his or her words or deeds.  But not everyone—in fact, not a single Serb—is as clearly in the public eye, and as obvious a target of criticism, as is Djoković.  For that reason, and even though I don’t believe for a second that this debate is really about the world’s top-ranked tennis player, I will begin by acknowledging and responding to one of the blogger’s central claims about him.
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