In a post-script to Serbia’s tennis triumph earlier this month, I have to remark on an article in the New York Times about the Serbian tennis stars, specifically the following paragraph:

Although Djokovic once explored the possibility of representing Britain because of frustration with training conditions and government inertia in Serbia, he is ever more the Serbian patriot and has been vocal in opposition to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008.

Patriot. The man wrote “Serbian patriot.” Not the mandatory “Serbianationalist.” But “patriot.” When has anyone seen the words “Serbian” and something as honorable-sounding as “patriot” together before in the media? Especially since a Serbian patriot can only mean a Serbian nationalist, right?

Not only that, but here the writer has Djokovic as being opposed to Kosovo’s independence and still a “patriot”. When anyone opposed to Kosovo’s independence can only be a “nationalist.” Never has this Kosovo position by a Serb been reported without that Serb being labeled by any “objective reporter” as a “nationalist.”

Indeed, the word “nationalist” or “nationalism” doesn’t appear anywhere in the entire article by Christopher Clarey. That can only happen on purpose, and so this writer is to be commended.

Another paragraph:

It was the dispute over Kosovo that led to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade and other areas of the former Yugoslavia from March to June 1999. Gencic’s sister died in the bombing. But she said that she, Novak and others continued to play tennis in Belgrade, choosing areas that had been bombed the previous night on the assumption that they would not be bombed again so soon…”We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day a minimum of three times for two and a half months, huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized,” [said Djokovic.]

As my friend Riva remarked, “I’ve never read anything in The Times from the perspective of the Serb victims of that bombing.”

Even the writer’s sentence describing the Kosovo conflict as a “dispute” is remarkable. While land disputes aren’t normally followed by international bombing campaigns and so such an outcome shouldn’t be cited casually, rather than mentioning “ethnic cleansing” or “Milosevic,” Clarey hits a lot closer to the truth of what the situation was: a turf war. His phrasing makes no pretensions as to who was the victim and who was the aggressor.

Early on in the article we’re even given some positive attributes about Serbs:

You could delve into tomes that explain the stubborn, resilient character of the Serbs, whose territory and autonomy have been overrun repeatedly but whose identity and sense of mission endure. You could spend an afternoon in Belgrade’s tennis clubs, where members once played on when NATO bombs were falling in 1999.

It’s as though I’ve landed on the moon for a minute.

Behind Serbia’s Rise, a Star and His Family
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY (Dec. 1)

KOPAONIK, SERBIA — To begin to understand how a small, struggling nation like Serbia managed to reach its first Davis Cup final this weekend, you could interview Slobodan Zivojinovic, a big-serving Serbian trailblazer at Wimbledon and elsewhere before he became a portly tennis administrator and car salesman.

You could delve into tomes that explain the stubborn, resilient character of the Serbs, whose territory and autonomy have been overrun repeatedly but whose identity and sense of mission endure. You could spend an afternoon in Belgrade’s tennis clubs, where members once played on when NATO bombs were falling in 1999.

But if you have to pick just one essential starting point, perhaps it is best to drive south from the capital toward the still-disputed border with Kosovo and follow the serpentine mountain road to Kopaonik, Serbia’s leading ski resort. Like so much of this diminished nation, Kopaonik has seen better days and is preparing to see them again.

It was here that Novak Djokovic’s family, much more familiar with schussing down slopes than hitting balls over nets, once operated several small businesses — including a pizzeria, sports equipment shop and art gallery — on the ground floor of a large complex during the winter and summer months. And it was here that the state-owned Yugoslav company Genex, which developed much of Kopaonik, chose to build three tennis courts just across the parking lot from where the Djokovics opened their Red Bull restaurant and creperie in the late 1980s.

Now full of cracks, holes and undulations, the green hardcourts are hardly a playground for the game’s elite. It is hard to believe that the planet’s third-best player, the man who held off Roger Federer at the U.S. Open in September, emerged from this.

“It was the first day of my first year in Kopaonik, and I was doing a tennis camp,” said Jelena Gencic, a leading tennis coach and former professional player. “And he was just standing outside the tennis courts and watching all morning, and I said: ‘Hey little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is?”’

That summer afternoon in 1993, Novak, just 6 years old, accepted Gencic’s invitation and returned to take part in the clinic himself. He arrived carrying a gym bag with his belongings well in order, just like the professionals he admired via satellite television.

He began playing in earnest, aided enormously and at just the critical moment by Gencic, the same cultivated and intuitive coach who had helped shape the games of the future Grand Slam champions Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic.

“The third day, I called to see the father and mother for the first time, and I said, ‘You have a golden child,”’ Gencic, 74, recalled in an interview at a clay court in Belgrade where she still gives lessons. “I said the same thing about Monica Seles when she was 8.”

The Djokovics were stunned but ultimately inspired. They would need all the inspiration they could muster in the years ahead as they sacrificed security and scrambled for money in a disintegrating economy.

“Let’s say that Jelena Gencic gave us strength; she’s a serious woman,” said Goran Djokovic, who at 46 is four years younger than Srdjan. “We were all together as a family, and we had our project. It was not good times, there were sanctions and the war was starting. It was not an easy time for Serbia, for Yugoslavia, but all the money we had we invest in Novak. He had to be the one in front of the family who had to have everything he need — the new racket, the good food and everything. Of course we can live very easy if he didn’t play tennis, but we have a vision.”

But Djokovic’s talent has not just served himself and his kin. His talent has served a bruised nation, one that has seen its territory shrink and shrink some more in the last 20 years as Yugoslavia cracked apart and Serbia was left with Montenegro and Kosovo and then left with nothing but itself and a reputation in as much need of repair as the war-damaged buildings in Belgrade.

But as the country has grown smaller, its tennis has grown bigger, with Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both reaching No. 1 in the women’s game and with Djokovic shining brightest for the men but hardly shining alone, with his Davis Cup teammates Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic all part of the surge. Tipsarevic and Troicki are in the top 50 in singles; Zimonjic, the group elder at age 34, is a former No. 1 player in doubles now ranked No. 3.

The paradox of shrinking Serbia and its tennis growth industry is not lost on Djokovic, for whom the Davis Cup final represents renewal.

“I think it is very symbolic, and I think it’s very much deserved — for the tennis team, for the country, for the sport — because we put a lot of effort into improving the image of our country in the recent years,” he said. “The history of our country is cruel. We have to face those issues or, should I say, we had to. Not anymore I hope, because we are going in the right direction, and we are ready to forgive, ready to move on.”

Although Djokovic once explored the possibility of representing Britain because of frustration with training conditions and government inertia in Serbia, he is ever more the Serbian patriot and has been vocal in opposition to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. He took the stance, in part, because Srdjan and his siblings — ethnic Serbs — were born in Kosovo.

It was the dispute over Kosovo that led to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade and other areas of the former Yugoslavia from March to June 1999. Gencic’s sister died in the bombing. But she said that she, Novak and others continued to play tennis in Belgrade, choosing areas that had been bombed the previous night on the assumption that they would not be bombed again so soon.

Djokovic expresses no bitterness, but plenty of emotion.

“We remember all these things and we will never forget, because it’s just very strong inside of you and very deep inside of you,” he said. “It’s traumatic experiences and so definitely you do have bad memories about it. We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day a minimum of three times for two and a half months, huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized.”

But Djokovic, like his nation, has survived, and the big noises that will soon reverberate inside Belgrade Arena are not likely to have such negative effects.

This reminded me that in 2008 Ana Ivanovic recalled having to practice under bombs:

Serb and volley: the tennis school that conquered the world

Dervisevic remembers the difficulties in keeping the centre open. “When the bombing began we shut down for three days, but after that we decided that we should continue as normal,” he says. “We were open every day. One day a power station just 400 metres from here was hit by a bomb. All the windows here were blown out. It was a horrifying experience, but we carried on. We wanted to keep things as normal as possible for the children. I think the experience gave us all strength.”

Ivanovic was one of those who tried to keep her training routine going as bombs exploded around the city. “I would say those were the toughest times,” she recalled. “It was very hard. It went on for three months. It was very hard to practise, and we couldn’t at the start of the bombing. Later on we got used to it. We would practise at seven in the morning and try to live as normal lives as possible.”

I also liked this quote by a Serbian reporter, or “tennis specialist”: “Earlier, when I covered a tournament, I needed to explain for hours who I was and where I came from. Nowadays, it is enough to say that I am Serb and everybody raises their thumb in approval.”