Many Serbians are enraged by the Australian government’s decision to try and deport Novak Djokovic – but their reasons are complex and go far beyond blind nationalism for a homegrown hero.
In the southern suburbs of the capital Belgrade, the tennis star is memorialised with not one, but two murals in a complex of ageing concrete, brutalist, apartment buildings.
It was here the tennis star spent time as a child at his grandfather’s apartment, and where locals say he sheltered from bombs that dropped on the city during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.
“In this country, for the last 30 years, we seldom had the opportunity to be joyful,” Dr Zoran Radovanovic told the ABC.
He is a retired epidemiologist who understands why the country is keen to celebrate a “national hero”.
“It is a pretty dire situation … there have been so many wars and we have the same politicians who ruled in the ‘90s,” he said.
Djokovic turned into ‘anti-vaccine icon’
Dr Radovanovic has dedicated much of his life to studying infectious diseases and has been critical of his government’s response to COVID-19.
“Our populist government, in order to satisfy all segments of society, promoted both vaccine and anti-vaccination attitudes,” he said.
“People got confused that there were such mixed messages and the result is that we have only about 50 per cent of immunised people.”
After seeing Djokovic’s visa saga play out, he is now also frustrated with the Australian government.
He believes the media circus that has developed around the Australian government’s decision to revoke Djokovic’s visa, the court challenge, and now the use of ministerial powers, elevated the tennis star’s vaccine status.
“The vaccination campaign across the world will suffer because Novak now has been promoted as an anti-vaccination icon,” he said.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said his decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa last week was on “health and good order grounds”.
Djokovic had already won a challenge to his initial visa cancellation last Monday by Border Force officials, overseen by Judge Anthony Kelly in the Federal Circuit Court.
Djokovic ‘deserves equal treatment’
Nikola Kovacevic is a human rights lawyer for the Ideas Centre for Social Research and Social Development in Belgrade and proudly supports vaccinations, but still believes Djokovic is a victim.
“But then when he arrived there were plenty of contentious practices applied to him, and I believe that the judgement of [Judge Anthony] Kelly clearly shows this.”
“I don’t care if this person is Djokovic, but is a refugee from Afghanistan or from Syria, all of them deserve the equal treatment.”
He works closely with organisations and individuals seeking asylum and refuge in Serbia and other parts of Europe and believes what Australia has done to Djokovic is bad practice.
“The treatment of refugees in Europe, in the Western Balkans, we have push-backs, but we have denial of entry, we have violence at the borders,” he said,
He said if an individual as wealthy, influential and powerful as Djokovic can be treated like this, it shows how little power migrants have when trying to enter Australia.
“To a certain extent, he is being bullied by the Australian government,” he said.
“Imagine if you’re not Novak Djokovic, who has many thousands of dollars to pay for the best lawyers.”
‘They should allow him to play’
Djokovic’s treatment is playing on the minds of many in Belgrade.
“It’s kind of sad what happened because, you know, he’s the best in the world and if they can do that to the best tennis player, they can do that to everybody,” Vladan Nitic told the ABC in the Serbian capital.
For some, their anger is simple — they really just wanted to see a Serbian player be able to claim the title of most-successful male tennis player of all time.
Djokovic is vying to claim his 21st grand slam, which would put him one ahead of Rodger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
For father-of-one Ljubal Stanojic, that would be something for the whole country to celebrate.
“I think it’s ridiculous because he’s number one, he’s the ninth champion of the Australian Open,” he said.
“I just want to see good tennis.”