Two days ago, the former number one tennis player Novak Djokovic announced he will sit out the rest of the season. The announcement comes after an apparent 18-month struggle with a lingering elbow injury. The arrival of his second child this coming September and a burnout from playing on top level for the past decade probably also contributed to the decision to pull the plug on the forgettable 2017.
The upcoming break in Djokovic's career, his unprecedented reign in 2015 and 2016, and his recent physical and mental struggles is an occasion to reflect on his achievements, controversies and future prospects.
Much has been said and written about Djokovic's lack of public support. The most commonly cited reason is his break of the dominance of the two most celebrated tennis players in the Open Era history, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Others mention Djokovic's sometimes unrestrained behaviour, like shirt-tearing and swearing. Numerous pundits deny any difference in their affinity and treatment of Djokovic and his peers. The fact is: an athlete coming from a country that has been continuously vilified in the Western media during the past 25 years cannot gain much support from the people exposed to that propaganda.
I remember the feelings of tennis fans and the media toward Ivan Lendl in the 1980s. His stone-cold facial expression was most often mentioned in the same sentence with his unlikable disposition. During the Cold War, however, people, including athletes - especially athletes, perhaps - from the Easter Bloc were subject of insurmountable political and social prejudice.
The moment the United States, Vatican and Germany, most notably, decided to support the seceding republics of the former Yugoslavia, an onslaught of most pernicious, unrestrained denigration against Serbia and Serbs commenced. Unfortunately, as an objective first-hand witness to the events in the Balkans, I can testify that most of those accusations were pure lies aimed solely to satisfy the geopolitical aspirations and the expansion of NATO. As Russia's closest ally, Serbia had to be muted and humiliated.
Considering the prejudice Novak Djokovic faced, especially playing against someone like the corporate darling Federer, his success seems even greater. During the 2015 US Open Finals, for example, the fans in New York were so loud and boisterous, Djokovic faced a hugely unfair disadvantage, but still managed to win in four sets. Some of his less favourable acts were so blown out of proportions, it is a miracle he succeeded in overcoming the obvious and invisible, but palpable hostility.
Even if Djokovic does not climb back to the top in the next few years before the end of his career, he will be remembered and honoured for some paramount achievements. Probably the most notable one is holding all four grand slam titles at the same time, the first tennis player in history to achieve this feat on three different surfaces.
Knowing his grit and resolution, one has to predict that a rested Djokovic will come back. He will probably never reach Federer's 19 grand slam titles, perhaps not even Nadal's 15, but his numerous fans, especially in Eastern Europe and the Far East, will soon rejoice in his athletic virtuosity again.