There can be little room for doubt that Novak Djokovic and Serbia are intrinsically intertwined, such is the passion with which the world number one represents his country.
On the one hand, you could argue that Djokovic is Serbia’s greatest ever export. On the other hand, how can he possibly be considered an export when his heart has clearly never left his country?
That heart has been put to the test too. Last year, when Djokovic was brilliantly leading Serbia to ATP Cup glory in Australia, it could have been Great Britain – if the LTA got their way, that is.
Back in 2006, British men’s tennis was emerging after a lifetime in the doldrums. Young Brits taking an interest in the sport had grown accustomed to tennis just being one of those things that other countries did well.
Andy Murray had arrived on the scene, and his talent was clear. He, though, was not the trailblazer.
Tim Henman had injected an annual fortnight of Union Jack waving patriotism to the summer, with Wimbledon often looking more like the Last Night at the Proms than a tennis extravaganza. He wasn’t brilliant, by any stretch, and by his own admission he never had the talent of Andy Murray, but Henman was certainly a step up from Jeremy Bates.
And then there was Greg Rusedksi, who is often overlooked in the story of the emergence of British tennis – possibly because he seemed very Canadian. That perception was perhaps unfair. Rusedksi’s mother is British, and so he is. That’s just how it works. He had also been living in Britain for some time before representing the country, just as Johanna Konta had before she switched from Australia.
What Rusedski also was, though, was more successful than Tim Henman. While they both reached a career high ranking of number four, it was Rusedski who reached the final of a major and won more career titles.
Rusedski, though, and his success beneath the British flag, told the LTA was that they didn’t have to restrict their search for British tennis stars to within the British Isles alone – and they turned their attentions next to a teenage Novak Djokovic.
By that time, Djokovic was far from a secret. 2006 was his breakout year. He came to Britain’s attention when he beat Rusedski at that Davis Cup on April 9. A month or so later he was in a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time, and later that summer he collected his first ATP titles, first in Amersfoort and then in Metz.
That was enough to see him finish the year in the top 20, and within a year he had won his first Masters and reached a Wimbledon semi-final. Mere months later, he was a Grand Slam champion.
It was after that Davis Cup match that Britain made their move. They had invested a huge amount of money in British tennis at that point, and the sum gain from that had been one Andy Murray. The fact that Murray alone, considering how brilliant he is, did not represent enough of a return demonstrates just how much had been invested.
The Guardian reported that Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, had spoken to the LTA in the April. Essentially, the offer was to give him better funding and better facilities in exchange for him switching to play for Britain – a process that would have taken up to six years to complete.
Djokovic himself tried to downplay the talks, perhaps for fear of backlash back home, telling reporters at the French Open in May: “It’s big pressure, for sure, from my country, from the media and from the people. I just don’t want to talk or think about it any more.”
The LTA were still determined to get their man, though, and they hoped that the political situation that existed in Serbia and Montenegro, who Djokovic then represented, would help them.
As Montenegro had voted for independence, they argued, Djokovic’s country no longer existed so he could be fast-tracked into British citizenship.
“The ball is in their court, that’s the bottom line,” Roger Draper, the LTA’s chief executive, said of the Djokovic camp on June 20th, 2006. “We cannot do anything until they make the decision.”
In fairness, the LTA plan was clear, simple, and ultimately quite good. As the Guardian reported: To have Murray and Djokovic, two of the most promising players in the world, playing under the Great Britain flag in the future would clearly be a tremendous boost at a time when British tennis, Murray excepted, has scraped the bottom of the barrel, and found nothing but a hole.
There was, of course, and enormous crimp in their plan: Novak Djokovic didn’t want to switch, and his successes on the court had rubbed the gleam from the LTA’s offer of greater funding.
As Djokovic himself explained in 2009: “Britain was offering me a lot of opportunities and they needed someone because Andy [Murray] was the only one, and still is. That had to be a disappointment for all the money they invest.
“But I didn’t need the money as much as I had done. I had begun to make some for myself, enough to afford to travel with a coach, and I said, ‘Why the heck?’ I am Serbian, I am proud of being a Serbian, I didn’t want to spoil that just because another country had better conditions.
“If I had played for Great Britain, of course I would have played exactly as I do for my country but deep inside, I would never have felt that I belonged. I was the one who took the decision.
What you can say in favour of the LTA is that, regardless of whether you agree with their policy of trying to recruit players from other nations, they could at least spot a genuine talent.
There is, though, and interesting epilogue to the story. Just this week, Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic has been highly critical of the media’s treatment of the Serbian, claiming an inherent xenophobia of the Balkans is behind it.
“Why is he being treated that way? Probably because of his background, people from Balkans are always looked at differently,” Ivanisevic said.
“Throughout my career I have witnessed players doing all sorts of things, but nobody got the kind of treatment Novak does.”
You can’t help but wonder whether the perception of Djokovic, in the western media at least, would have been very different had he been playing under a flag of their own.
You also, though, can’t help but think he may not have achieved all he has without the Serbian flag of which he is so proud to fight for.
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