I am married to a Serbian-American woman, and I had little choice but to wake up at 3:30 A.M. Sunday morning to watch Novak Djokovic take on his longtime friend Andy Murray in the finals of the Australian Open. It was a very one-sided match with the number three player in the world defeating Murray in straight sets. As Djokovic cradled the silver Challenge Cup in his arms, he said: "There has been a tough period for our people in Serbia. But we are trying every single day to present our country in the best possible way. So this is for my country, Serbia."
I had tears in my eyes as he said those words, as I sure did most Serbs. Anyone who follows tennis knows how during the bombing of Belgrade by NATO planes, Djokovic and other young Serbian players practiced in a drained swimming pool. It was an excruciatingly difficult time to be Serbian. The Serbs have overwhelming pride. It is the best thing about them and the worst. It is the best in that they stand tall. They are unfailingly loyal. They are great friends and terrible enemies. It is the worst in that they never say they are sorry. They almost never ask you for support. They carry their grudges for centuries.
The Serbs did a terrible job of presenting their side of the struggle in Bosnia and Kosovo and stood helplessly by watching media coverage that often made them out to be the sole villains of the drama. When I asked Serbs about Srebrenica where Serbian soldiers killed large numbers of young Muslim men, they rarely said they were sorry. They almost always pointed out to some other atrocity that had been committed onto them, such as the killing of Serbian women and babies by Muslim marauders.
The Serbs are finally beginning to accept the reality that their people were responsible for that egregious atrocity. Last summer when I was in Belgrade there was a demonstration featuring hundreds of pairs of empty shoes symbolizing the murdered Muslims in Srebrenica. At the same time there was a counter demonstration of ultra nationalist Serbs protesting the protesters. As I walked past the shoes and the police separating the two groups, what impressed me was that the two demonstrations were taking place. It never would have happened in any other part of the former Yugoslavia, not in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo.
Last summer Belgrade was the place to be. Western Europeans came in the tens of thousands to enjoy the celebrated nightlife, the matchless hospitality, and the vivid sense of life. It was the summer of the World Cup and whenever Serbia played the city stopped. If you were out in the street, you knew when Serbia scored a goal by the shouts coming from cafes, apartments, and rooftops.
For those of us in the United States, sports are a happy diversion. In Serbia it's a means of national assertion, a symbol of massive national pride. The country of seven million has an incredible range of great athletes in everything from volley ball to water polo, basketball to soccer, but no one has carried the Serbian flag further and higher than Novak Djokovic. Some Serbian athletes have shied away from even mentioning their controversial country. Twenty-three-year old Djokovic is first and foremost a Serb, and he wants you to know it.
Serbs have always stood for what they think is right. They fought Muslims for hundreds of years as they advanced upon Europe. Serbs shed proportionally more of their blood in World War I than any other nation and they suffered terribly in World War II. They fought a guerilla war against the Nazis like no other people. And in recent years they did evil, unforgivable things and evil, unforgivable things were done to them. But thanks in part to Djokovic, the Serbs can once again walk tall.
Novak Djokovic has given much to his people. They are proud of his victory but more than that they are once again proud that they are Serbs.