Two Out Of Three: Serbia, Sport And Super Sunday – OpEd
Novak Djokovic has won – again. A suggestion about how sport does have a habit of seeping through the pores of every day life can be gathered last Sunday, when Serbia found itself with sporting representatives in three grand finals – the Australian Open, with the ultimately victorious Djokovic, the European water polo finals, and finally, the European handball competition.
In the end, it was two out of three for the Serb contenders, an impressive conversion rate. If it has not been for the rampantly methodical Danish handball team, propelled by an even more rampant Mikkel Hansen ‘who was playing with us as if it was a rehearsal match’ as one Serbian commentator put it, a trinity of sorts would have been achieved.
Serbia, one of the core countries of the failed national experiment that was Yugoslavia, finally finds itself in the successful books of the sporting world after periods of imposed isolation. (People are still debating where this imposed isolation came from, be it Brussels, Washington DC or misguided politicians in Belgrade itself.)
The original pan-Slavic creation produced a formidable host of sports figures in various fields, deriving strength from the multi-ethnic state. Now, citizens from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Slovenia do battle with each other with tribal intensity. The nationalist madhouse is well and truly packed.
The sessions began around 9.30 in morning, Serbian time. The snow in the southern part of the country had reached such levels that transport was becoming difficult. Villages had been cut off. The deep freeze was beginning to set in such townships as Vranje. But televisions were being turned on. The pastry for the traditional pita was being made. Wood stoves were crackling.
The warm up was filled with the usual asides that commentators the world over search for in the age of the televised event. When in doubt about what to say, babble. Why does Rafael Nadal line up his water bottles in that forensically peculiar way? A sea of blue-covered ball boys and girls were readying themselves for what would become one of the longest tennis finals in history, and the Australian Open final’s longest at 5 hours and 53 minutes. Cheer squad Nadal was also getting ready – the Spaniard tends to be well received in front of the Melbourne crowd. Against Djokovic, this has been much needed – the Spaniard has been psychologically invaded, occupied, and controlled by the Serb’s prowess for several games running.
To win the Australian Open, titanic endurance before the elements is required. This is not something that Djokovic has always managed, accused in the earlier part of his career of lacking necessary steel, a moaner before being a victor. Players usually sweat on the court in Melbourne Park, dissolving before changed shirts, rackets and draining rallies. Nadal seemed to be sweating and rippling into space, his face almost falling off in the heat, his nose getting rosier as the hot weather seeped into his strokes.
For Djokovic, cramp started proving the enemy. Nearing the championship point in the fourth set, Nadal crawled back, nipping away. At stages, both players seemed to be exchanging mistakes. But amidst the struggle and his defeat Nadal seemed to be exorcising the Serbian occupant from his mind, pushing for ascendancy.
Considering that Djokovic is now the supreme player in over a very gifted field (a quartet that bristles with talent including Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray), the accolades are well deserved.
After enticing a nation for almost six hours, the meal was barely digested before the water polo players took to the pool in the European Championships in Eindhoven to do battle with Montenegro. While both teams have a camaraderie that is almost conspiratorial (both love defeating mutual enemies), the Serbians edged out their contenders by one goal – 9 to 8. The Serbian captain Vanja Udovičić managed to sneak one in with a mere minute to go, something that comforted the noisy supporters after a sprightly Aleksandar Radović struck three consecutive goals for Montenegro. The team members from both sides are close, but not that close.
It then fell to Serbian handball team in the Belgrade Arena to step up and add to the trophy cabinet. Throughout the match, there was a sense that the home team was playing permanent catch-up. The 21-19 score line was flattering. But the Danes did not give reason to believe they would romp through – they had lost two of their opening three games at the tournament. But Hansen played like a man possessed, converting 9 of his 13 shots on goal.
Even here, the Serbian narrative involved a psychological angle. While Denmark was praised, exhaustion from the semifinal against the old enemy, Croatia, was blamed. A commentator suggested that the national team get over the complex of having to always pit themselves, and master, Croatia. Memories have an elephantine pedigree in this part of the world. But for all their intrusions, Serbians will feel a sense of relief about their sports representatives. And one might say that it is high time they did.