When I told a friend I was going to Serbia, the first thing he texted me was: WHY?
“Why are you going to the land of our common enemy?”
For a minute I was perplexed, forgetting this was a Nadal fan talking to a Federer fan, about a shared tennis nemesis.
“Djoko!” he exclaimed. Novak Djokovic, the winner of 16 grand slams, had inflicted trauma on us both recently. My friend was reeling from the Australian Open decimation of Nadal, I was still suffering PTSD from Federer’s blown match points at Wimbledon. And despite those deep, psychic wounds, here I was, not only in the land of our purported common enemy, but voluntarily paying good money to eat at his parents’ restaurant in New Belgrade. A sprawling establishment with a small outdoor pool, a special room stacked with his trophies and a long menu, Novak, as the restaurant was called, took up the corner of a building in the planned city across the Danube river.
As a tennis nut, I respected Djokovic—his shape- shifting, weightless body, his canine tracking instincts, his determination in the face of hostile crowds—but you would not catch me watching Djokovic highlights set to Beethoven’s Ninth. And yet, Belgrade was essentially a city disguised as a Djokovic highlights reel. As a tennis fanatic it only behoved me to spend a week tracing his footsteps in the Serbian capital.
The first stop was the Danube-facing Teniski Centar Novak, a 14-court complex that Djokovic owned and practiced at, and which was open to the public to use. Groundsmen sprayed the deep orange courts wet, and a gimlet-eyed receptionist manned the counter. Photos of Djokovic clasping each of his grand slam trophies hung from the walls. “Nothing from Wimbledon 2019?” I asked, referring to his most recent, and (most trauma- inducing) victory. “Not yet,” she replied.
I left the reception and went courtside, where Zoran M^arkovic, a short, bespectacled businessman was waiting to leave. “Tennis is way more popular now than when I was young,” he said, when I started chatting with him. “A lot because of Novak, and a few others.”
He was done with his game for the day, but gathered himself to have a go at me, when in jest I mentioned I didn’t usually root for Novak. His eyes widened, “You are joking, right?”he asked. When I diplomatically declined to respond, he took me and my friend out to coffee, driving us across the river to abankside restaurant. On the off-chance, I asked him if he knew Dusan Grujic, president of the well-known Teniski Klub Partizan where Djokovic had played as a boy. He slid his phone across the table with Grujic’s number. I knew Serbia was small, but four-degrees-of-separation-from-Djokovic small?
A few days later my friend and I took bus number 7 towards Teniski Klub Partizan. Grujic’s number hadn’t worked, but I had an address, and immense faith in my shoe leather reporting chops. We strode ahead like heat-seeking missiles searching for greatness’ ground zero, down tree-lined avenues, slightly uphill, past the football stadium, and straight into the club. The symphonic sounds of fluffy yellow balls striking mud and gut grew louder and more urgent as we approached.
Inside two teenage girls were locked in energetic rallies. Miroslava Radivojevic, the mother of one of them, Lola, an upcoming young star, sat by us in front of walls lined with posters of a young Djokovic, an agile Djokovic, a rambunctious Djokovic. “He is something special, a complete person,” said Miroslava. “Now everyone thinks of Serbia and boom, boom, they think we are a country of sport.”
Of course, the family had met Djokovic. In a city of1,166,800 people it seemed that 1,166,799 had at some time or other met him. An architect I later spoke to over dinner sputtered into her wine when I asked if she too had fulfilled this mandatory citizenship requirement. ‘Yes, I’ve seen him a few times,” she said, chuckling. “He’s really a lovely guy.” The architect, the businessman, the waiter, the tour guide, each one was a personal character witness to Djokovic’s—I mean Novak’s—humility, brilliance, politeness, kindness, and overall mensch- ness. Each had a story of a meeting, a handshake, or a selfie.
Leaving the club, we headed out towards the bus stop opposite the communist museum, to take a bus to Banjica, his grandfather’s neighbourhood where he had spent some months of each year as a boy. Armed with just a few screenshots of large murals now painted outside the former home, we sped straight into the heart of socialist suburbia, the buildings turning bleaker, chunkier, greyer.
We got off at the last stop, and entered the first planned complex in front of us. But it took several tries, several minutes and several queries before we snaked our way through pillars and courtyards to the right spot. Old men sat around slabs of concrete with chessboard markings and small children shot hoops on the nearby basketball court. Novak was painted on one wall, smiling, flanked by his first coach, Jelena. Gencic, and his grandfather, the complex’s former resident. On another, he had been portrayed alone, mid-stroke, against the national flag. Yugoslavia no longer remained, but suburbia looked unchanged, and among these brutalist behemoths, Djokovic had honed his brutal killer instincts. This wasn’t standard- issue, sightseeing, but more like unwrapping the national character in more unexpected but equally satisfying ways.
A final task remained: visiting one of his family’s multicuisine restaurants, where urban legend had it that they often came to oversee things themselves. And that is how I happened to he on the ground floor of the building with a massive picture of Novak running down the front, a life-sized sculpture of him welcoming diners at the entrance. Some Chinese tourists milled around the counter buying memorabilia. Inspirational paintings and posters decorated the interiors.
After tearing into a vegetarian quesadilla. and smiling some excellent local wine, I caught sight of his parents entering. While the food was perfectly fine, the chat with Dijana Djokovic was the spicier takeaway, as she agreed to be interviewed and spoke with a disarming candour. Life in communist Yugoslavia was tough, running a pizza shop in the mountains was tough, putting together funds to raise a tennis champion was tough. Her straight blonde hair falling to her shoulders, her hands moving as she talked, Dijana was engaging, articulate, and answered everything thrown at her. But one question baffled her: why wasn’t her champion son as popular as Federer and Nadal? She shrugged in maternal resignation. Before we parted, she told me he was in town, but couldn’t be sure if he would be at practice.
I didn’t happen to achieve one of those fabled sightings. But, one evening, strolling in the pedestrian-only Knez Mihailova street and shopping zone, one face stood out from across a traffic signal. I followed the short, grizzled man in the pink t-shirt and assailed him with a crude question: haven’t I see you on TV before? He said maybe. “Do you work with Novak?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “I’m his physio.”
Ulises Badio declined to be interviewed (even after I swore I wasn’t doing opposition research), but offered a selfie instead, as consolation. After that, I crossed the road, down the path that led to Belgrade Fortress, passing stalls with a constellation of national heroes, Novak t-shirts, Putin mugs, Tesla keyrings and Serbian flags. Seized by a moment of madness, I messaged my friend: “Love Serbia. About to throw it all away and commit to becoming a Djoko fangirl forever.” Honestly, I would never be a Novak fanatic, but Belgrade, refracted through a tennis lens, peppered with insights into his life, and full of denizens who loved him, had worn off the edge of my agnosticism. The sun was sinking into the horizon, a scrum of visitors crowded the dirt paths. Between the museum, the bridges and the fierce historical walls, by one entrance stood an astonishing sight—a tennis court; burnt sienna, freshly watered, a clay canvas awaiting ball marks and shoeprints. If a country loved tennis enough to put a court in a fort—even if we disagreed on the specifics—how could I not love it?
Teniski Centar Novak Opened in 2009, the 14-court complex is open to the public to rent. It also has a cafe, shop and trophy room.
Novak Cafe and Restaurant A large multi-cuisine restaurant in New Belgrade, the socialist planned city. Banjica An older neighbourhood, with two murals painted outside his former residence.
Teniski Klub Partizan A club and coaching centre beside the football stadium where Djokovic and former world number one Ana Ivanovic trained as youngsters.
Djokovic memorabilia can be bought at the restaurant and the centre, but unofficially on the streets, most notably on the path that leads to the Belgrade Fortress.