Novak Djokovic is unarguably one of the greatest athletes of all time. The 22-time Grand Slam champion, hailing from Serbia, has earned the respect of not just his compatriots but also sporting fans worldwide.
Well-known tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg, however, isn’t a fan of the highly patriotic environment created by the Serb’s fans during or after his matches. In his podcast No Challenges Remaining, Rothenberg discussed the 35-year-old’s unexampled connection with Serbians around the world.
“The sort of increasing wrapping up these tennis players in nationalism – it’s obviously really strong with Djokovic. I mean Djokovic is tied to Serbian identity and Serbian national pride in this way that I don’t think any tennis player has ever been tied to their country before,” Rothenberg said.
“Like you see his name being projected on skyscrapers and stuff in Belgrade after he wins. And the parades and the level of just fervor for him,” he added.
Ben Rothenberg further went on to call Novak Djokovic “a messianic figure” and described how he’s seen as a savior.
“You know downright messianic figure almost in Serbia, who’s come to redeem Serbia and bring them out of this dark time they’ve had, into the light, being this great champion and the greatest of all time in the sport,” he remarked.
The journalist stated that such a perception of Novak Djokovic by his fans was inappropriate and led to a charged crowd engagement, which was uncalled for.
“It’s just a lot. It all becomes very, very fraught and very charged,” he said. “I feel like it’s worth bringing down the temperature, however possible, for the sport.”
As a solution to the issue, Ben Rothenberg advocated the removal of all national flags from tennis matches, similar to what has been done with Russia and Belarus.
“I almost wonder, looking at what they’ve done with Sabalenka, and the other Belarussians and Russians – taking away the flags, can we just take away all flags? I think that’s a doable option,” he said.
“It just feels like a big net negative” – Ben Rothenberg reiterates his stance on nationalism displayed by tennis fans, including those of Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic has been cheered on by scores of Serbian fans throughout the years during the Australian Open. The 22-time Grand Slam champion also received support in the form of protests when he was deported from Australia in 2022.
Ben Rothenberg, however, feels this kind of patriotic support is unnecessary in a sport like tennis, especially while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ongoing.
“They keep trying to foreground nationalities with all these team events like United Cup,” he noted. “During wartime, like we are in wartime right now, meaningfully with the Russians and Ukraine, it just feels like a big net negative and I just wish there was a way to sort of make all the players independent.”