Home / Sports / Far From Home, Djokovic Is Celebrated as a Favorite Son – New York Times
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Far From Home, Djokovic Is Celebrated as a Favorite Son – New York Times

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Serbian fans waved flags and signs in support of Novak Djokovic long after he won the men’s title at the Australian Open. Credit Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was trying to explain to the television studio hosts how he had managed to tie two Australian legends with his 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory over Andy Murray in the Australian Open final Sunday. But he could not hear himself think.

Below the makeshift broadcasting studios on the Melbourne Park grounds, a large group of fellow Serbs had broken into song.

“They’re saying, ‘We love you,’ in Serbian,” Djokovic said sheepishly.

For one piquant mix of people in this country’s melting pot, Australia Day last Tuesday was not the only time during the tournament set aside for nationalistic revelry. Sunday, with the men’s final, became Serbia Day for fans of Djokovic, who tied the Australian Roy Emerson on Sunday with his sixth title here. It was his 11th major singles championship over all, equaling the career total of another Australian great, Rod Laver, as well as Bjorn Borg.

Djokovic, 28, carried a stuffed toy wombat named Fatso into the match, a good-luck token he borrows every year from a volunteer driver who ferried him to and from the tennis grounds during his first title run, in 2008.

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Djokovic acknowledged his fans below a television studio after the men’s final. Credit Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

His fans came bearing, and in some cases wearing, their own lucky charms. Some came in water polo caps in the red, blue and white colors of Serbia in a nod to the country’s world championship team, which Djokovic cheered on his social media accounts during its march to the title in August.

Other fans wore red, blue and white bandannas tied around their heads; draped the Serbian flag across their shoulders like capes; or covered their necks with Serbian soccer scarves. One man wore a white sweat jacket with three silk-screened images of Djokovic on his back.

Many arrived four and a half hours before the first point of the final so that they could queue up to have their faces painted. Popular choices were the Serbian flag or “Go Nole,” in reference to Djokovic’s nickname.

Sandra Vukovic, a Brisbane resident of Serbian ancestry, said she waited 25 minutes to have red, blue and white stripes applied ear to ear, with a white eagle — like the one in the coat of arms on Serbia’s flag — painted around her eye.

Several hundred Serbian fans paid 35 Australian dollars (about $ 25) for a grounds pass and planted themselves in front of the video screen on a spacious garden square that has effectively become Novak’s Neighborhood over the last nine years.

The square is set up like a pedestrian version of a drive-in, with double chaise lounges and straight-back chairs all pointed toward the screen and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. By 4 p.m., three and a half hours before Djokovic and Murray walked out on the court, all the seats were taken.

Vukovic, who said she bought a ground pass because she could not afford a ticket to the final, which would have cost hundreds of dollars, has been attending the tournament for nearly a decade. She comes, she said, to cheer for Djokovic, whose humility she finds irresistible.

Djokovic explained the reason for his modesty in his postmatch news conference. Asked if his victories already over Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal this year were proof that he had separated himself from his competitors, Djokovic said he did not think that way because then “you can get a big slap from karma.”

While Djokovic was the main draw, he was not the only attraction for the Serbs who spilled over the grass and onto the pavement, where they sat cross-legged, necks craned at the screen.

“It’s become like a tradition,” said Vukovic, who has become friends with many of the other regulars. With a sweep of her hand, she indicated a group seated at a picnic table behind her and said, “I met these people one year at the tournament.”

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Vukovic held in her lap a glossy photograph of Djokovic with the words: “I can’t keep calm. I’m a Nole fan.”

For Vukovic — unlike Djokovic, who won his Australian Open tuneup in Doha, Qatar — 2016 did not start auspiciously. She lost her job. “But I think Novak’s my lucky charm,” she said. “I got a new job that I’ll be starting when I get back to Brisbane.”

For Australia’s sizable Serbian population, the final day of the men’s tournament has become their annual chance to pay homage to their sporting hero.

“Nole’s like a god in Serbia,” said Tom Dimitrijevic, who was on break from his job supervising the tram service operating outside the tennis grounds.

“I was in Serbia during last year’s French Open,” Dimitrijevic said, referring to the year’s second major, in which Djokovic lost to Stan Wawrinka in four sets in the final. “After he lost to Wawrinka, it was like a week of mourning. People were so dejected in the streets.

“I don’t think Australians understand. This is a prosperous country. But in Serbia, it’s not like it’s in an economic boom. Nole is No. 1 in the world, so it gives the country something to be happy about.”

On Sunday, several police officers patrolled the periphery of the grass square. Over the years, skirmishes have broken out between fans from Serbia and those from Bosnia and Herzegovina or Croatia. Plastic chairs, bottles and punches have been thrown on occasion, but on this night all was calm — except when a Djokovic winner caused the crowd to break out in chants.

During the second set, a man with a Serbian bandanna around his head and a Serbian flag around his shoulders returned from a concession stand with four cups of beer in a drink holder. He delivered the drinks to his friends, who were leaning against a tree, their eyes fixed on the big screen. Someone started a chant of “Let’s go, Nole,” and it rippled through the crowd like a wave.

On the big screen, the analysts from Seven Network of Australia remarked on how quiet the crowd was inside Rod Laver Arena.

The crowd outside the arena grew more boisterous as Djokovic made his way from one television interview to another. They serenaded him in Serbian, singing, “We love you.” After Djokovic finished his last interview, he turned around, waved, gave a thumbs-up sign and threw four sneakers, one by one, into the rippling sea of red, blue and white.

“They waited for me,” Djokovic said. “I’m very grateful for their support. It’s quite incredible. I don’t take it for granted, obviously. I’ve had the fortune to win this trophy now for six times, but I never experienced such support after a match.”

He added, “It’s amazing.”

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