Serbian sun: The rise of Novak Djokovic

Nole at the French Open, the one Slam title that has thus far eluded him.

Nole at the French Open, the one Slam title that has thus far eluded him.

“The Sporting Statesman: Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia” – Chris Bowers’ flawed though still admirable new biography  – attempts what few sports bios do, to place its subject in a geopolitical context. But then, few athletes require that context the way Nole does.

Djokovic (pronounced “JOCK oh vic,” not “JOKE oh vic”) is first, last and always a son – and sun – of Serbia, which took a huge public relations hit during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s that resulted in and from the dismantling of Yugoslavia, even though we now know there was enough blame to go around. The oldest of three boys born to a modest, traditionally patriarchal family of Belgrade restaurateurs, Nole (No lay) was also a child of those wars – an experience that has, according to Bowers’ book (John Blake Publishing Ltd.), turned him into something of an oxymoron, a tough pacifist, fighting for embattled children through his work with UNICEF, clothing sponsor Uniqlo and his own Novak Djokovic Foundation, administered by his bride, Jelena Ristic.

“We were always told that once we go out of the country, there will be a lot of stereotypes attached to us because we come from Serbia,” Nole says in this “independent biography.”  (Translation: Djokovic, who plans on writing a memoir some day, limited Bowers’ access to his circle.) “We are the ambassadors of our families and our country, and we need to always show the best in us. So I carry this responsibility with big respect and honour, and I hope that I am managing to portray my country in the best possible light.”

Though Bowers – who is described as having contributed the first English-language biography of Roger Federer – does a thorough job of tracing the history that led to the Balkan Wars, you get the sense that even a history buff such as myself will skim those alternating chapters to concentrate on the more personal story of the Djokovic family, which reads like a cross between Dickens and Dostoevsky. It’s the story of a preternaturally self-possessed child who saw tennis on TV and at the age of 5 marched himself to a tennis camp across the street from the family pizzeria in the mountain resort of Kopaonik and pressed his nose up against the fence watching until someone noticed him. That someone turned out to be Jelena Gencic, who coached Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic and may just have been one of the greatest teachers this side Aristotle and Annie Sullivan. Gencic – who knew a prodigy when she saw one – would teach Nole not only the basics of tennis but what it means to be a cultured human being, one who reads Pushkin, listens to Beethoven, knows which fork to use with which course. She made Novak Djokovic the cosmopolitan person he is, and she is one of the two most compelling supporting players in this tale.

The other is Srdjan Djokovic, Nole’s father, a man Dostoevsky would’ve loved – tough, driven, embittered by those who refused to help his child on the way up, willing to sacrifice anything, including in a sense the tennis careers of his younger sons, Marko and Djordje, to enable Nole to fulfill the potential he saw in him. Bowers bends over backward – way over backward – to be fair to everyone in this book, and let’s be clear about this: Srdjan Djokovic is no Mike Agassi or Richard Williams or even Peter Graf. Tennis has had its share of monstrous stage parents. Bowers’ paints a portrait of a man who with his quietly strong wife Dijana raised three polite, respectful young men – no mean feat in this or any age. But Srdjan also comes across as stubborn and controlling, and some of the best moments in the book are the ones in which his more refined, compassionate son takes him on. Most of these occur away from public view, the Djokovics being big on keeping things in the family. But Bowers recounts the well-documented instances in which Nole has ordered his father out of the player’s box at tournaments for cheering or criticizing too loudly. And then there was the more passive-aggressive war Nole waged against his father in selecting Ristic – who Srdian apparently didn’t like – as a life partner.

Such insights and revelations, however, are few and far between. If there is a fault in this book – apart from Bowers’ unfortunate insistence on calling world champs “world-beaters” and peevish criticism of Nole’s own enjoyable book, “Serve to Win” – it’s that Bowers while offering a lot of information doesn’t always connect the dots.

For instance, he never fully explores the fascinating rivalries and relationships among the so-called Big Four – although hats off to him for providing us with a photograph of the teenage Andy Murray with punk-blond hair. 

You get the sense that while Nole had a rocky start with Roger Federer (thanks in part to Srdjan), they have a big brother-kid brother relationship with Feddy Bear even telling the young Nole after beating him in one final to keep up the good work, that they’d have many more finals ahead.

The relationship with Rafael Nadal appears closer and, yet dare we say, more brutal. Rafa is 11 months older than Nole; Andy, a week older. The three shared a play station, meals and soccer matches for years as they traveled the world chasing Fed. Srdjan may have been on to something when he said that Rafa only pretended to like Nole when he (Rafa) was beating him. I don’t think that’s the case. But the tender post-match moments at the net did get more businesslike when Nole became No. 1.

Tennis is a blood sport, a marriage of chess and boxing. Bowers describes a match in which Nole came to the net and Rafa sent a shot back that hit him in the face. Rafa apologized, but Nole turned away before he could see it.

Bowers also describes their almost-six-hour slugfest in the 2012 Australian Open, the longest final in Slam history. What most people took away from that was the splendid tennis and Rafa’s joking “Good morning” to the crowd at the end of a long night’s journey into day. Bowers gives us the cost – the two players hooked up to IVs and monitors in waiting ambulances after it was all over.

Perhaps the biggest failure in connecting the dots here lies in the disconnect between what everyone says about Nole and how he sometimes performs. Coach after coach is quoted saying how talented, focused, intense, intelligent, ambitious, disciplined he is and was from the time he was a small child. Then why hasn’t he, by his own admission, won more Slam titles than the seven he has?

Bowers charts the role that allergies, the need for a gluten-free diet and other physical problems have played. But these have been surmounted. What about the pressures of a demanding father who sacrificed everything to make his dream a reality? What about the memory of celebrating his 12th birthday with bombs falling around him? What about the price of being the perfect oldest son who can cut loose but not too much?

Bowers hints at a dark side but, of course, doesn’t give us the dark side. And I think his comparison to Fed – a teen hothead who became a demigod – is way off base. Fed has an elegance and a steadiness – not to mention a stable geopolitical background – that elude Nole, who nonetheless has an edgy beauty all his own.

Bowers’ Nole, though, remains a mystery – to the author, to us the readers and perhaps even to Nole himself.