“Why this book?”: an interview with Chris Bowers about The Sporting Statesman: Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia. Originally published by Nicole Lucas in Letter&Geest, a Saturday supplement of Dutch daily Trouw (8 Nov. 2014, page 31).
“I had previously written a book about Roger Federer and my publisher also wanted a biography of Novak Djokovic. At first I said ‘no.’ Djokovic told me he didn’t have time to work with me and therefore I didn’t really feel like doing it. But my publisher insisted. Then I said: ‘I want to write a book that is a mix of Djokovic’s history and that of Serbia.’ After all, this is a top athlete who carries the flag of a country that is still young as a sovereign state but has to deal with a heavy inheritance because of the wars of the nineties and rulings of the ICTY, which has marked Serbia as the biggest culprit. A country that, according to me, is still little understood by the western world.
It brought together my interests. Of course, I am, in the first place, a sports journalist: I’ve been reporting about the international tennis world for more than 20 years. But I’m also interested in the broader context. I do not see sport as an isolated phenomenon. And the disintegration of Yugoslavia made a huge impression on me, much more than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Every country has something of which it is not proud. Let’s not pretend that Serbia has done nothing. But let’s also not pretend that the Serbs were the only villains. But Djokovic had to grow up with that stamp—and had to find his way in difficult circumstances. That is of course quite different from what Federer had to deal with.
While I have not spoken extensively with Djokovic, I did talk with many people from his surroundings. Perhaps the most important conversation I had was with Jelena Gencic, his first coach—a very special woman. For me, that was also one of the most inspiring encounters of my journalistic career. We started talking about music and there was an instant bond. She didn’t only teach Novak how to play tennis but also to look outside that small world—to Beethoven, to Pushkin, to Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor of the alternating current motor. How do they enrich your life? Gencic died on June 1, 2013, during Roland Garros. I had only met her twice, but her death made me really sad.
I found it much more difficult to write about Srdjan, Novak’s father. Quite a few people have had problems with him. Unlike his son, he has not exactly endeared people to him. Yet, I think it’s important to explain the difficulties he had to go through. You can say now that it was not always ethical what he did: he insisted, for instance, that journalists wrote only nice stories about Novak, no critical pieces. But at the beginning of this century, maybe there was not always so much room to be ethical in Serbia.
Novak needed time to break away from his father and to develop himself. He is not easy to fathom, but inside he is a good man. What he does is very subtle. He laughs, jokes, makes contact. People look at him and say, ‘Nice boy. Where does he come from? Serbia? Then they can’t be all bad there.’
In that sense, he and Federer are quite similar. Both are not only great athletes, but also international idols that transcend the boundaries of their sport and their country. ”
Translation by Nicole Lucas. Feedback and criticism are welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.
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