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Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s “national treasure”

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Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s “national treasure”

In the eyes of his uncle Goran, the popularity of Novak Djokovic suffers no debate. “He is, let’s say, a national treasure, he belongs to Serbia and to the world, he poses very seriously in his spacious office with a distant view of Stari Grad, the “old town” of Belgrade. The affable 50-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair has his little explanation for the success of his illustrious nephew on a tennis court. The secret of Novak’s formidable eye and defensive qualities? According to him, the answer is to be found in Kopaonik, a ski resort perched at 1,700 m in the mountains of southern Serbia, where the future champion spent part of his childhood and hit his first shots. of racket.

“The court was glued to the forest, without depth, Novak had no choice but to return the ball as quickly as possible, which flies faster with altitude. And if he slides so well on the terrain, even on hard terrain, it’s because he knows how to ski to perfection.”, advances this former professional skier, who holds the position of vice-president of the Serbian Tennis Federation, modest compared to his wealthy French counterpart, with 156 clubs and 2,500 practitioners (compared to 7,500 and 1 million licensees for the FFT) .

Goran Djokovic, uncle of Novak Djokovic, in his office in Belgrade, May 15, 2023.
A painting of Novak Djokovic in Goran Djokovic's office in Belgrade.

But the exploits of his nephew – in contention for a 23e Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros since May 28 – have undeniably made this individual sport take off in a country where football, basketball, volleyball, even water polo, are historically far ahead. “Although we can be proud of Monica Seles, it is Novak’s generation, all his victories and the national team title in the Davis Cup [en 2010, en battant la France en finale], who exploded the popularity of tennis in Serbia. »

Sasa Ozmo, a journalist for Sport Klub, a television channel which broadcasts sport in the Balkans, was already following the discipline before the emergence of Djokovic. “It was not comparable, it was a marginal sport, it led the older people to watch tennis on television. Here, we follow his matches from 7 to 77 years old, ” he insists, seated in this rainy mid-May in a café in Novi Beograd, the “new Belgrade”.

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When he returns to the city where he was born almost thirty-six years to the day, before the 2023 edition of the Parisian tournament, Novak Djokovic lives not far from there, in this part built from 1948. It’s not uncommon to see him playing in the street with the neighborhood children. With his family, he also owns a restaurant in the area, a little isolated between the highway and the Stark Arena, the huge complex that hosts the matches of Partizan Belgrade basketball players. The portrait of the player, Australian Open trophy in his hands and jacket with the number “22”, was deployed over the entire height of the building after he joined the Spaniard Rafael Nadal tied for number of Grand Slam titles.

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