An article by Saša Ozmo, who writes about basketball and tennis for Serbia’s B92.
Athletes are pioneers in the attempt to rebuild bridges that were destroyed during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, as best illustrated by the relationship between Serbian and Croatian tennis players.
However, even though they get along so well, the question is to what extent that’s reflected in the attitude of people in their respective countries.
It’s 2015: twenty years since the end of the war. So, it’s appropriate to ask where we are now on a scale from “death to the neighbor’s cow” to “anything for a neighbor.”
In the last few months, young Borna Ćorić has emerged as a future star of international tennis. In Serbia, many find him sympathetic; but, at the same time, the reader response to reports on his matches is often “Nobody’s interested!” and “Why are you writing about a Croatian player?”
And what is the status of Novak Djoković and the rest of the Serbian players in Croatia?
“Novak has many friends in Croatia—he’s friends with our players and he also left a good impression when he played here, as is the case with Viktor Troicki, who has competed in Umag and the Rijeka Challenger. Each of Novak’s successes is viewed with approval in Croatia—and a lot of people root for him. I don’t think people here would say something ugly, like “I hope he breaks his leg,” observes Zlatko Horvat, a reporter with Rijeka-based Novi List, adding that Ana Ivanović also has many Croatian supporters.
A regional basketball league has existed for over a decade, incidents of an ethno-nationalist nature are minimal, and water polo and handball have likewise “crossed the border.” But tennis players are especially significant due to their close relationships and conciliatory statements.
At the Davis Cup tie in Kraljevo, fans didn’t whistle during the Croatian national anthem and Captain Željko Krajan emphasized that the whole team felt at home. This impression is shared by Croatian journalists.
“Kraljevo has set a good example here—we were pleasantly surprised. Let’s start to live better, both Croats and Serbs, rather than get caught up with trivialities,” says Horvat.
Although we’re no longer one country, Serbian media always pay closer attention to the achievements of ex-Yugoslav athletes—be it Tina Maze, Marin Čilić, Damir Džumhur, or Janica Kostelić. There’s still a trace of additional interest, for whatever reason.
“I work at a daily paper that follows tennis, and Djoković gets quite a bit of coverage. It varies, of course, depending on the importance of the tournament and match, but finals of Grand Slam tournaments are given two pages. The recent Dubai final report took up a page,” says Ivan Jelkić, who writes for Zagreb’s Sportske Novosti.
Novak Djoković has become a global star and millions of people around the world root for him. On Twitter alone, four million people “follow” him and at every tournament, autograph-seeking fans besiege him.
Unlike his colleague, though, Jelkić isn’t sure whether people cheer for Novak in Croatia. But, he points out, they do respect him.
“There are always exceptions who’ll say, ‘He’s not one of us’ and ‘What do we care about him?’; but people who understand and love the sport know what kind of player Novak is and follow his matches, maybe even root for him. ‘Rooting’ is perhaps a bit strong, but they appreciate him, in any case.”
In both Serbia and Croatia, people like to pride themselves in their athletes—we often call them our best ambassadors to the world. That’s why we could stand to follow their example a bit more in this respect.
It’s not necessary to worship Novak in Zagreb or Čilić in Belgrade; it’s enough not to hate each other. There is no need—and these days in Kraljevo offer more proof that we are able to function quite normally together.
Translated by Ana Mitrić. Feedback is welcome; please let us know what you think in the comments.
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