It’s been a week for serving up roast piglet in Belgrade, the traditional way to mark the Serbian Orthodox Church’s New Year, and the joke doing the rounds is that the locals should be tucking into kangaroo instead.

They’d expected to be watching Novak Djokovic chart a course to an historic 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, by far his favourite tournament, but instead the local hero is back in the Balkans, hunkering down this week in his Montenegro bolt-hole. 

The flat screen TVs at the Novak Tennis Centre he’s built near the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers here were showing Carlos Alcaraz v Matteo Berrettini late on Friday afternoon. There was not even a hint of interest. 

Novak Djokovic was deported by the Australian government, and his nation is split on the issue

Novak Djokovic, who was expelled by Australia’s government, is now in limbo.

For the rest of the world, the 34-year-old’s removal by the Australian Federal Court, who successfully argued he was ‘a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment’, is a controversy about the right to individual choice. 

For Belgrade, it is about Serbia’s place in the world and whether these events actually reflect a prejudice against the country, stretching all the way back to the 1990s Balkans war, which saw Serbian leaders convicted for war crimes.

‘They wouldn’t have treated an American player or a British player like that,’ says Matja Malinowski, a nursery teacher walking near the tennis centre. The experienced former Serbian Fed Cup captain Dejan Vranes goes as far as to say that this might have been a convenient way for the tennis authorities to prevent Djokovic from surpassing Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal’s 20-Slam tallies. 

‘The success of a small, unfashionable country doesn’t fit their script,’ Vranes says. ‘They have ways of stopping these things.’  

Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia and his fight relates to their suspicions of prejudice

Djokovic, a Serbian national hero, is fighting prejudice. 

Some even mutter darkly about how Monica Seles, born in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad, an hour’s drive north, was cut down in her prime when stabbed on court in Hamburg in 1993. Her heights were never the same.

With remarkable timing, the Serbian government announced on Thursday that it was revoking lithium exploration licences granted to Melbourne-based Rio Tinto, sinking a £2billion mining project which would have seen the compulsory purchase of vast tracts of Serbian countryside. 

‘The Australians thought they could take our land. They were wrong,’ says Malinowski.

That won’t quell the arguments over Djokovic currently raging in the pubs and restaurants of Belgrade. The argument about whether Djokovic received a free ride from Serbian media following his violation of quarantine rules. He had tested positive several weeks prior to flying to Melbourne. 

About whether a real act of heroism would have been using his huge influence to help Serbia’s struggling vaccination effort, which has currently managed to get only 50 per cent of the population protected.

This week, an opposition politician compared Djokovic with Muhammad Ali. Ali refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War and the American government canceled him.   

Some Serbs believe Djokovic was thrown out of Australia to prevent him winning a 21st Slam

Some Serbs think Djokovic was expelled from Australia in order to stop him winning the 21st Slam. 

Ali also supported a campaign for schoolchildren to be vaccinated against measles, mumps and polio. ‘Get your kids their shots,’ he declared in a 1978 national TV ad. 

‘We’re struggling to get the message out about vaccination and that’s we’re stuck on these low numbers,’ says a medic at the Dorian Gray bar on Kralja Petra Street. ‘Our people traditionally don’t trust government. He could have made a difference.’

Blazo Nadic, Lawyer, is an expert commentator who regularly comments on Belgrade TV’s ongoing controversy. ‘It’s an open wound,’ he says.

And at the centre of it all is Djokovic — ‘Nole’ as they affectionately know him. A complicated, curious, eccentric individual who is certainly not all he seems and, whatever your view of his refusal to vaccinate, simply does not conform to the simple, binary definition of an ‘anti-vaxxer’ which many have attached. 

‘He has some strange ideas about things and this forms the background to him and the vaccine,’ says Marko Lovric, an op-ed writer with Nin, one of numerous weekly news magazines in this blisteringly cold city, where the striking number of bookshops reveal the appetite for knowledge. ‘You might say that Novak has promoted “pseudo-science”.’

He is talking about the player’s belief in the power of the mind to change material things. And his fascination in neighbouring Bosnia’s ‘energy pyramids’ — a naturally formed range of hills that some feel have healing powers. 

Djokovic's millions of fans were expecting to watch their hero playing for history Down Under

Millions of Djokovic fans expected to see their favorite player playing down Under. 

‘Serious scientists and geologists concluded a long time ago that they are just hills but this is the theory,’ says Lovric. ‘Novak obviously has some interest in things but on more than one occasion, like this, I would say he found the wrong path to knowledge.’

The way he approaches Covid is also very different from what science has to say. This week, it was revealed that he had taken an 80 percent share in Quant BioRes (Copenhagen-based) which works on the theory that any protein could protect against new viruses. ‘Again, strange. But this certainly does provide an explanation for the reluctance to vaccinate,’ says Lovric.

Nedic, a world authority on legal mediation, refuses to criticise the Australian Appeal Court’s legitimate deportation decision — a result of the country’s unhealthy constitutional control over the judiciary, he says — and questions Djokovic’s breach of quarantine in Belgrade. 

But he, like many others here, considers the player’s actions at last year’s Serbian Open to be the most significant, unreported aspect of the entire controversy.

The country has huge stores of vaccine because it has affinities with west and east — ‘Serbia sits on two seats,’ as a local saying goes — and consequently has given its population the choice of Chinese, Russian and western jabs. 

'Nole' is known to have an alternative approach to health which influences his vaccine choice

Nole is well-known to take a different approach to health and this influences his decision on which vaccines to choose.

Djokovic helped to invite participants from other countries that have limited vaccine supply to the Serbian Open. ‘Those are not the actions of an anti-vaxxer,’ Nedic says. ‘I simply do see any evidence of him discouraging vaccination.’

The player also stands accused of wilful negligence in organising Belgrade’s Adria Tour tennis tournament in the early months of the pandemic which left scores of players — himself included — with Covid. Serbia’s bizarre response to the pandemic perhaps offers some mitigation. 

Red Star and Partizan Belgrade had fought a friendly football match days before this tennis event.

‘After the harsh initial lockdown, our approach suddenly became one of the most liberal in the world, which was crazy,’ says one leading sports analyst, who asked not to be identified. 

Serbians have an 'us against the world' mentality and Djokovic is a seen as a man of the people

Serbians believe in ‘us against all the world’ and Djokovic has been described as “a man for the people”.

The Serbian vaccine effort his struggling and Djokovic has become a symbol of the protests

Djokovic, the symbol for protests and Serbia’s failed vaccine efforts has been Djokovic. 

It’s easy to see why Djokovic’s removal from Australia has left many prepared to overlook his domestic breaches. He cycles around Belgrade’s streets in summer. He’s a Red Star Belgrade supporter who began playing tennis at the Partizan Belgrade club.

Also, he fits the image of a proud, centuries-old Serbian stereotype. He was mistreated by both Austro–Hungarian Empires and is constantly fighting for his identity. 

In the middle of 1990s, UN trade embargoes were crippled by the Bosnia War. This war saw Serbian leaders commit atrocities. It’s been a long road back. The country remains one of Europe’s poorest.

‘Certainly, for the past 30 years Serbs tend to perceive themselves as someone at odds with the world,’ says Lovric. ‘It’s us against the world. Novak is seen as someone who is a manifestation of that, coming from a place like this to become No 1 in a sport for wealthy people.’

While some in Serbia feel it’s time to let go of their victimhood feeling, others from the Balkans are also experiencing this same sense of national humiliation. This could be why Dejan Lovren, from Croatia, who is a regional rival of Serbia, supported him during Melbourne’s unravelling.

Satisfying though it is for many, the removal of Rio Tinto has nothing to do with Djokovic’s own ejection from Australia. After new legislation was passed, it made it easier to purchase land. This allowed for the removal of large-scale environmental protests. Aleksandar Vucic, the President of Serbia decided that he was able to do without all this hassle in a huge election year.

Serbia’s next big question is whether Djokovic will manage without Grand Slam. ‘I do wonder if there’s a way back in this sport if he finds himself excluded for a year,’ says tennis coach Vranes. ‘But I’ve also known him since he was a nine-year-old, doing all the boring things that most kids don’t want to do. He’s given his whole life to this.

‘Part of me still wonders if he would really put the vaccine ahead of the chance of that 21st title and really being the greatest. If anyone can get out of this hole, it’s him. But he’s got a very big decision ahead of him.’