An online search for Novak Djokovic spews out a seemingly endless stream of stories on how he has positively changed the image of Serbia and then, like Caesar to Rome, he brought thousands to the streets of Belgrade to celebrate his victorious homecoming.
Of course, it is true that many of these reports are riddled with hyperbole and over-the-top praise for the sportsman’s triumph. There have even been demands for the sanctification of the young tennis star.
While it is easy to pour scorn on the inflated enthusiasm of a number of these celebratory stories, there is legitimacy in their core message. What we all witnessed was a natural outpouring of national pride in the incredible success of a countryman.
This was not merely jingoistic flag-waving of the more common kind seen in Belgrade to protest and protect a feared erosion of national rights. This party had warmth, an infectious glow of pleasure at seeing one of their own on top of the world.
Obviously there is another side to this story, and you don’t have to dig too deep to find people only too happy to down-play Djokovic’s win. There are reports of the alleged behaviour of his father, stories that claim he commands inflated rates for advertising spots, and accusations of abandoning Serbia by paying taxes in Monaco rather than at home.
Maybe there is some validity to these stories, that is not the point. The issue is that they miss the essence of this story. This is not just about Djokovic, a young man who has undoubtedly not even peaked in his performance. This is about a much-needed injection of positive pride in being from Serbia. It presents an opportunity to celebrate genuine achievement and to bathe in the all-too-rare positive attention currently being received by the country. The challenge is to continue that good feeling and make its impact a lasting one.
It is not going too far to hope that this could be a time of great opportunity for Serbia. People could look back on this as a tipping point, changing both the perception abroad and feeling at home, as Serbs come to believe in themselves again and the world takes another look at a country left too long in the shadows.
Now is the time to grasp the nettle and challenge the view of Serbia as a state stuck in the mire of its own history. The easiest thing on earth is to play the downtrodden victim, the poor innocent everyone is picking on, and wallow in your own woes. That attitude is tired and it just doesn’t wash any more.
Obviously, there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance – and in the past the international image of Serbia has sometimes veered the wrong side of that line – but a confident head-held-high attitude will attract the right sort of attention. Serbia must begin to have that pride in itself.
Serbia has never been slow to rally its forces in the face of international criticism. This enthusiasm to jump to its own defence, often quite voraciously, was most recently evidenced in the aftermath of the ignorant outburst by America’s Chelsea Handler. Within hours, social media sites had been mobilised, protest groups had been set up and videos of young Serbs berating Chelsea and putting their side of the story were clocking up hits online.
This in-your-face national pride is definitely not thin on the ground. Even though the flag-bearing, slogan wearing crowd is a minority of the population, it knows how to punch above its weight, making its presence known whenever it feels that Serbia’s national identity needs protecting. There is something to be learned from that attitude. Even though heir methods often leave a lot to be desired.
What there is not enough of is genuine belief in Serbia as a nation. The type of self belief that generates confidence and a positive attitude. It is that self-belief that encourages and positively attracts interest from outsiders. Part of this renaissance will involve Serbia recognising that it deserve such attention. This is not the time to be weighed down by negatives or have your confidence shackled any longer. Now is the time to hold your head up and have faith, belief and resolve.
This is not a time to grumble about past prejudices, to be suspicious of motives or to try to get one over on old adversaries. The time has come to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and throw open the doors to invite the world to take a new look at the great many things Serbia has to share with anyone who makes the effort to step inside.
So now it is down to the people, they need to make this happen. If Serbia is to achieve its rightful place as an equal partner along side other nations, it must face its demons and believe in itself with confidence tempered with humility, not arrogance, fear or uncertainty.
For that it will need partners and friends. Accepting that Serbia is not in this alone is a key part of the process. Serbia must learn to accept and expect its rightful seat at the table as an equal. It needs to make a contribution to the process and be counted for what it can bring to the party.
By spotlighting this opportunity with his tremendous success, Djokovic should be applauded for showing what is possible. His success has been hard won and sacrifices have been required. But the pay off is worth all that he has left behind.
The same could be said of Serbia, if only it would chose to take up the challenge.
It’s high time to raise a glass to a bright future for Serbia. Cheers, prost, l’chaim, ziveli…