EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL REPORT: Novak Djokovic’s Vaccine Scandal Causes Division In Serbia

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Serbia is divided over Novak Djokovic’s vaccine scandal… The Tennis Star is a national hero to millions but returned home to find arguments raging over his Australian Open debacle
Belgrade’s bars and pubs are full of arguments over his refusal of the vaccine. The 20-time Grand Slam winner is known for alternative views on health
He has been criticized for harming Serbia’s struggling vaccination scheme.

It’s been a week for serving up roast piglet in Belgrade, the traditional way to mark the Serbian Orthodox Church’s New Year, and the joke doing the rounds is that the locals should be tucking into kangaroo instead.

They’d expected to be watching Novak Djokovic chart a course to an historic 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, by far his favourite tournament, but instead the local hero is back in the Balkans, hunkering down this week in his Montenegro bolt-hole.

The flat screen TVs at the Novak Tennis Centre he’s built near the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers here were showing Carlos Alcaraz v Matteo Berrettini late on Friday afternoon. No-one was remotely interested.

Novak Djokovic was deported by the Australian government, and his nation is split on the issue
Novak Djokovic was deported by the Australian government, and his nation is split on the issue

For the rest of the world, the 34-year-old’s removal by the Australian Federal Court, who successfully argued he was ‘a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment’, is a controversy about the right to individual choice.
For Belgrade, it is about Serbia’s place in the world and whether these events actually reflect a prejudice against the country, stretching all the way back to the 1990s Balkans war, which saw Serbian leaders convicted for war crimes.

‘They wouldn’t have treated an American player or a British player like that,’ says Matja Malinowski, a nursery teacher walking near the tennis centre. The experienced former Serbian Fed Cup captain Dejan Vranes goes as far as to say that this might have been a convenient way for the tennis authorities to prevent Djokovic from surpassing Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal’s 20-Slam tallies.

‘The success of a small, unfashionable country doesn’t fit their script,’ Vranes says. ‘They have ways of stopping these things.’

Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia and his fight relates to their suspicions of prejudice
Djokovic is a national hero in Serbia and his fight relates to their suspicions of prejudice

Some even mutter darkly about how Monica Seles, born in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad, an hour’s drive north, was cut down in her prime when stabbed on court in Hamburg in 1993. She never reached the same heights.

With remarkable timing, the Serbian government announced on Thursday that it was revoking lithium exploration licences granted to Melbourne-based Rio Tinto, sinking a £2billion mining project which would have seen the compulsory purchase of vast tracts of Serbian countryside.

‘The Australians thought they could take our land. They were wrong,’ says Malinowski.

That won’t quell the arguments over Djokovic currently raging in the pubs and restaurants of Belgrade. Arguments about whether the player was given an easy ride by Serbia media after breaking quarantine rules, having tested positive in the weeks before he flew to Melbourne.

About whether a real act of heroism would have been using his huge influence to help Serbia’s struggling vaccination effort, which has currently managed to get only 50 per cent of the population protected.

One opposition politician here this week compared Djokovic to Muhammad Ali, whose refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War saw the American government cancel him.
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But Ali was also the individual who backed a national campaign to get schoolchildren vaccinated against mumps, measles and polio. ‘Get your kids their shots,’ he declared in a 1978 national TV ad.

‘We’re struggling to get the message out about vaccination and that’s we’re stuck on these low numbers,’ says a medic at the Dorian Gray bar on Kralja Petra Street. ‘Our people traditionally don’t trust government. He could have made a difference.’

Lawyer Blazo Nedic, a regular commentator on the controversy on Belgrade TV these past weeks, has known nothing like this. ‘It’s an open wound,’ he says.

And at the centre of it all is Djokovic — ‘Nole’ as they affectionately know him. A complicated, curious, eccentric individual who is certainly not all he seems and, whatever your view of his refusal to vaccinate, simply does not conform to the simple, binary definition of an ‘anti-vaxxer’ which many have attached.

‘He has some strange ideas about things and this forms the background to him and the vaccine,’ says Marko Lovric, an op-ed writer with Nin, one of numerous weekly news magazines in this blisteringly cold city, where the striking number of bookshops reveal the appetite for knowledge. ‘You might say that Novak has promoted “pseudo-science”.’

He is talking about the player’s belief in the power of the mind to change material things. And his fascination in neighbouring Bosnia’s ‘energy pyramids’ — a naturally formed range of hills that some feel have healing powers.
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Djokovic's millions of fans were expecting to watch their hero playing for history Down Under
Djokovic’s millions of fans were expecting to watch their hero playing for history Down Under

‘Serious scientists and geologists concluded a long time ago that they are just hills but this is the theory,’ says Lovric. ‘Novak obviously has some interest in things but on more than one occasion, like this, I would say he found the wrong path to knowledge.’

His approach to Covid also departs radically from scientific orthodoxy. It emerged this week that he has taken an 80 per cent share in a Copenhagen-based company, Quant BioRes, which is working on a theory that a protein can protect against all new viruses. ‘Again, strange. But this certainly does provide an explanation for the reluctance to vaccinate,’ says Lovric.

Nedic, a world authority on legal mediation, refuses to criticize the Australian Appeal Court’s legitimate deportation decision — a result of the country’s unhealthy constitutional control over the judiciary, he says — and questions Djokovic’s breach of quarantine in Belgrade.

But he, like many others here, considers the player’s actions at last year’s Serbian Open to be the most significant, unreported aspect of the entire controversy.

The country has huge stores of vaccine because it has affinities with west and east — ‘Serbia sits on two seats,’ as a local saying goes — and consequently has given its population the choice of Chinese, Russian and western jabs.

Nole' is known to have an alternative approach to health which influences his vaccine choice
Nole’ is known to have an alternative approach to health which influences his vaccine choice

Djokovic was instrumental in inviting participants at the Serbian Open from countries with minimal vaccine supplies to vaccinate while in this country. ‘Those are not the actions of an anti-vaxxer,’ Nedic says. ‘I simply do see any evidence of him discouraging vaccination.’

The player also stands accused of wilful negligence in organizing Belgrade’s Adria Tour tennis tournament in the early months of the pandemic which left scores of players — himself included — with Covid. Serbia’s bizarre response to the pandemic perhaps offers some mitigation.

Days before that tennis event, Red Star and Partizan Belgrade had played out a football match before 40,000 people.

‘After the harsh initial lockdown, our approach suddenly became one of the most liberal in the world, which was crazy,’ says one leading sports analyst, who asked not to be identified.

Serbians have an 'us against the world' mentality and Djokovic is a seen as a man of the people
Serbians have an ‘us against the world’ mentality and Djokovic is a seen as a man of the people
The Serbian vaccine effort his struggling and Djokovic has become a symbol of the protests
The Serbian vaccine effort his struggling and Djokovic has become a symbol of the protests

It’s easy to see why Djokovic’s removal from Australia has left many prepared to overlook his domestic breaches. He cycles around Belgrade’s streets in summer. He’s a Red Star Belgrade supporter who began playing tennis at the Partizan Belgrade club.

He also fits a centuries-old image that fiercely proud Serbians have of themselves as outsiders; mistreated by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which ruled them, and perpetually fighting for their identity.

The Bosnia War of the mid-1990s, in which Serbian leaders committed unspeakable atrocities, brought crippling UN trade embargoes. It’s been a long road back. The country remains one of Europe’s poorest.

‘Certainly, for the past 30 years Serbs tend to perceive themselves as someone at odds with the world,’ says Lovric. ‘It’s us against the world. Novak is seen as someone who is a manifestation of that, coming from a place like this to become No 1 in a sport for wealthy people.’

Though some here say it is time for Serbia to get past their sense of victimhood, other Balkan nations feel the same national belittlement. It could explain why Dejan Lovren of Croatia, a regional rival to Serbia, tweeted support for him when Melbourne was unravelling.

Satisfying though it is for many, the removal of Rio Tinto has nothing to do with Djokovic’s own ejection from Australia. There had been large environmental street protests after new government legislation had simplified the compulsory purchase of land, which meant it could be handed it to the mining giant. In a big election year, President Aleksandar Vucic decided he could do without the trouble.

Whether Djokovic can do without the Grand Slam circuit is the question that will consume Serbia next. ‘I do wonder if there’s a way back in this sport if he finds himself excluded for a year,’ says tennis coach Vranes. ‘But I’ve also known him since he was a nine-year-old, doing all the boring things that most kids don’t want to do. He’s given his whole life to this.

‘Part of me still wonders if he would really put the vaccine ahead of the chance of that 21st title and really being the greatest. If anyone can get out of this hole, it’s him. But he’s got a very big decision ahead of him.’

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