Saturday, 10 December 2011

Novak Djokovic and the Politics of Admissibility

There were certainly a lot of (not terribly consistent) thoughts in the immediate fallout that proceeded from Wertheim’s decision to tweet a link to an Albanian blog post. A  well-researched post that he presumably thought put "the other side” of the narrative surrounding Nole’s conquest of the world rather well.

In so far as it was possible to disentangle, my first impulse was actually to agree.

We’d heard, it seemed to me, rather a lot since 2005 on Serbians training in emptied-out swimming pools with little or no mention of the devastation Milosevic and Co. wrought in that region during the 90s.

Perhaps the decision not to mar that early rise of Serbian tennis with reference to those atrocities was the right one.  Why, after all, should the country’s athletes (many of whom were pre-pubescent at the time) be expected to shoulder that burden? What can their tennis have to do with the prevailing political circumstances of their childhood?

Well, if you’re going to persist in chronicling the difficulties you faced during those early years (none of which I disagree with by the way) and weave it into an elaborate symphony of national reawakening,  it actually has EVERYTHING to do with it.


Its perfectly valid for Ana or Novak to draw attention to how their geopolitical plight placed their tennis development in a vastly different context from, say, Andy Roddick’s formative years. It did.

It’s equally fair for others to want to challenge much of that romantic imagery when you are a self declared nationalist using your (well earned) position to garner international support for your homeland.


Novak’s no different to any self-respecting athlete in wanting to raise his country’s profile in this way, but you can hardly blame others for wanting to relay the other side. Particularly those that lived through and were immediately affected by the conflict.

Quite apart from any of that, a superstar’s personal life and attitudes (both pre and post stardom) have always been fair game. That would have been true even if Novak weren’t an avowed nationalist. Only a tendentious prick will insist those attitudes tell the whole story, yet they always have and always will shape opinion. Not at all at odds with the now burgeoning narrative surrounding Novak’s rise to the top.

All well and good. But that’s when the cracks began to appear.

For one thing, it didn’t seem to me that the Kosovo post told us anything terribly new. Only the very young, in this age of Smartphones and Wikipedia, will have managed to remain wholly ignorant of a conflict that spanned most of the nineties – a conflict described as the most devastating since World War Two.

The Kosovo blog post was certainly a worthy reminder of the last of those conflicts, furnished with facts you may have missed (or forgotten from) the first time round. But it wasn’t, ultimately, all that revelatory.

Secondly, as many have already pointed out, branding Novak a “dangerous nationalist” on the basis of one quote is rash, uncouth and a little confused. You can certainly see why those living, to this day, with the consequences of ethnocentric expansionism might be naturally suspicious of Novak’s patriotic side. That’s a far cry from those neo-fascist extrapolations that are as bizarre as they sound and helpful to precisely no one.

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All of which brings us back to Wertheim. Who, on the one hand, deemed it both relevant (key word) and important enough to link to a blog post some might consider tendentious. But then ducked accusations of bias by offering to link to a rebuttal.

I really don’t think Wertheim was taking sides – that is, I’m sure he has a private opinion (one he may have been itching to get out), but I rather doubt that was ever what this is about.

And I’m not sure I buy into the outrage of those that would have us believe that linking to blogs in this way constitutes a new-fangled form of low-rent journalism.  Journalists of all spheres and from all walks of life link to blog posts all the time. It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to do so (within certain limits) and we should expect to see a lot more of it.

Nevertheless, it does seem somewhat irresponsible to do so with something as explosive as this. Offering to link to a rebuttal feels too much like offering to call the fire service after burning the house down.

What then? Bravado? Telling “the untold story”? .

Well let’s see: a liberal American journalist posted a link to a blog post highlighting the illiberal nationalism of an Eastern-European nation state with fairly weak US diplomatic ties – a country that until recently was considered by many US politicians as something of a pariah state. 

Nothing even remotely radical about that – I daresay he wasn’t trying to be. Nor have I any reason to doubt that he felt it was worth telling that “untold story”. Or AN untold story, at any rate – one it’s politically expedient to tell. Plenty remain untold.

Not to single out Wertheim (the problem’s bigger than any one person), but it’s easy to offer up counter-narratives to a brand of nationalism that’s fallen out of vogue with most of the more liberal west – and it’s easy to deem that kind of discourse “relevant” when it isn’t at odds with any national agenda.

Would he have linked to a Palestinian blog during the Dubai/Peer debacle two years back? There’s an “untold story” there too.

Saying the two situations aren’t comparable because of either the glaring discrepancy between Novak and Shahar’s standing in the game, or simply because there’s no accompanying rhetoric surrounding Shahar that involves training in emptied swimming pools is disingenuous.


What this episode speaks to, ultimately, is the politics of admissibility – the politics that determines what’s relevant and what’s not. Or to put it more crudely, who’s in and who’s out.

Politics that’s bigger than any single journalist – indeed, politics that both subsumes and governs their industry. Like I said, it’s really quite crass to single Wertheim out.

As it happens, I didn’t agree with Dubai back then either – not least because it felt kinda ridiculous for a WTA event to even consider banning a WTA player. But neither did I feel they didn’t have the right to protest against an on going occupation by a country they don’t even have diplomatic ties with (I can only assume that Dubai, like others in the vicinity – to say nothing of the many Jews and non-Arabs worldwide –  didn’t take too kindly to Israel’s then recent incursion into Gaza that had resulted in 1400 Palestinians dead, over 900 of them civilians).

But none of that was deemed either “relevant” or “admissible”.  Instead, we simply went, as we always do, through the tired old charade of pretending that nothing that’s occurred in that region in the past 60 or so years could have or should have given rise to this state of affairs. Words like “discrimination” and “exclusion” were used by no less than Venus Williams and Andy Roddick as if they were the exclusive provenance of one side, and Shahar in particular.

Well, there’s “another side” to that too. Though you’ll have to cast your net just a little wider to get at it.  The absence of a counter-narrative here would be quite laughable if it weren’t so chilling.


Novak’s hardly unique in holding views some might find unpalatable. Players, celebrities and superstars have done that since time immemorial.

Nor would it surprise me very much to learn that he may harbour future political ambitions–

When Djokovic won the Wimbledon championships in July -- which catapulted him to the top of the world rankings -- all of Serbia was ecstatic. A euphoric Serb president jokingly offered Djokovic his post, while 100,000 jubilant fans welcomed their native son back to Belgrade with folk songs, fireworks and red-blue-and-white flags.
-- Spiegel 

A joke? Really? In a world where Marat gets appointed to the Russian Parliament? Anyone that’s followed Novak’s rise to superstardom knows that he might have been earmarked for Serbian statesmanship as far back as 2007.

"The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I'd prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too."

Is that bad?

I’m not going to pretend to be a great fan of nationalism – not least because it’s seems unhealthily predicated upon the alienation of those “unlike” you. But it’s hopelessly naive not to think it plays a rather large role in the lives of many in that region (and indeed of many in the “liberal” west) – the vast majority of whom simply want to live in peace.

Is there any reason, at this point, to think Novak’s nationalism should be any different to, say, that of Goran Ivanisevic?

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