The tennis superstar's attitude toward the pandemic carries some traces of a mentality that many in the Balkans are trying to defeat.
Back in the Sixties, a Serbian philosopher Radomir Konstatinovic wrote a book called “A philosophy of Palanka”.
Palanka is a word that the Balkans inherited from the Ottoman Turkish and today means a small town in the Balkans. In Turkish, it was a name for a type of wooden fortress the Ottoman Empire built on the roads to protect travellers and caravans.
In his often marginalised book, Konstatinovic was not fooled by the sudden modernisation of his society and wrote about the “palanka” mentality that goes against everything new or modern — a mentality that closes itself from the outside world, claims to be the upholder of tradition and carries nationalism on its sleeve.
In this type of mentality, the past is more important than the present. It's often deployed in the act of self-defence when winds of social or cultural change are at the doorstep. It helps people to recoil without guilt while showing dogged determination to resist something that is unfamiliar and means only good and no harm.
I can’t help but think about Konstatinovic’s book as I watch the news about Novak Djokovic’s visa being cancelled by the Australian authorities and him being escorted by the immigration officials while ecstatic reporters are trying to take a photo of him hiding behind the window.
The same week as I watched the Novak-Australian fracas, I tested positive for Covid-19.
My symptoms were mild. I was one of the lucky ones that had access to the vaccine and a booster shot.
Still, it was a stressful time and the other night I had troubles breathing and couldn’t sleep because I was worried that I may have infected my mum who had come to visit me that weekend on her 60th birthday. It was the first time since the pandemic began that we mustered some courage to have her sit on an Istanbul-bound flight so we could spend some quiet time together.
Although she tested negative, she returned home worried about my health.
This is the new, scary, unpredictable world that we live in. Plans change all the time. We must be ready to quarantine any moment and stay away from our loved ones for long periods of time.
The one thing besides social distancing that can help us get through with milder symptoms is vaccines.
Around 61 percent of the world’s population have received at least one dose of a vaccine but there are stark gaps between vaccination programmes in different countries.
The Omicron variant is reportedly circumventing the immune system so even the people with the strongest immune systems can contract it easily. Especially if they are not vaccinated.
And of course sportsmen too – like Novak Djokovic.
For Djokovic, his body is his temple. His diet and exercise are extremely important for him. This is no surprise as it is, alongside his mental strength, a key to his success on the court.
But Djokovic reportedly has never had a vaccine and says his health matters are private.
While his privacy should be respected, his recalcitrance should be called out too. Djokovic should know that the world where we live has changed dramatically ever since the pandemic was declared. And revealing your vaccination status does matter in light of the collective public health. Unfortunately, this whole episode has revealed a rather irksome side of Djokovic too.
As one of the biggest tennis players of all time and one of the most famous people in the world, he is constantly surrounded by people which makes his decision even more questionable. Especially in the Balkans where I come from.
In the Balkans, the poor region of the EU where countries have one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in the continent, governments struggle to convince people that vaccines can actually save their lives.
People, who for decades lived through horrible communist regimes like the one of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, are still wary of their governments. They find it hard to believe their rulers even about the daily updates on Covid-19.
Back in October, Romania’s president said the crisis in the country's overflowing hospitals was a “national drama of terrible proportions”, blaming low vaccination rates.
Many in the region continued to exhibit the “palanka” mentality by choosing to remain unvaccinated in the face of a grave health crisis that has left the entire world on tenterhooks.
And when Djokovic, the region's biggest star, hides his vaccination status, it makes matters worse. It sends a wrong message across not only the Balkans but also the world that vaccinations shouldn't be taken seriously. In the Balkans, all the vaccine skeptics will have another reason to refuse getting a shot, making the job of health officials more difficult.
Fans who transcend borders
When I was a teenager, my friends and I thought that only Brits or Americans or Australians can become famous stars – all actors, singers, sportsmen that we grew up with were coming from there.
If you see someone from Eastern Europe in a Hollywood movie - he or she usually plays the role of a bad guy with a strong accent.
And then there was Djokovic.
I have always been a big fan. Not because I was into tennis but just because he is from my part of the world and he managed to achieve success beyond the region's borders.
I remember how my brothers and I always admired his commitment, discipline, and all-conquering attitude while he was slowly taking over the world.
And he did it – he became part of The Big Three alongside Federer and Nadal winning the Grand Slams around the world.
It looked like he managed to have it all - an attitude on the court and off, fans around the world, and he married a beautiful woman in St Stefan, a small islet on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro.
He became the region’s favourite role model after he helped so many people through his humanitarian work.
But the other day, when Djokovic left Australia against his will after his visa was cancelled for a second and final time, it broke many hearts. He was deported unceremoniously after losing a bid to stay in the country and defend his Australian Open title.
The unvaccinated tennis star won't be able to play at the Grand Slam tournament he has dominated like no other and may never play there again, if his three-year ban from the country is not revoked.
Djokovic’s father Srdjan came out with a bizarre rant, calling his son the Spartacus of the new world who doesn't tolerate "injustice, colonialism and hypocrisy".
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who led a slave rebellion against the Roman Republic and has since served as a symbol for those revolting against oppressive rule.
By invoking the Spartacus metaphor Srdjan tried to portray his son as a victim of some grand conspiracy — a classic “palanka” defence for something indefensible.
None of the Djokovic fans are happy with the way he came out looking from this vaccine fracas. Many back home in the Balkans are miffed as well because we no longer want to shut ourselves off from the outside world. We are trying to build a rational society, open ourselves to positive change. We know accountability and transparency are essential to achieve a healthy, inclusive, multicultural future. And Djokovic, as a sports icon, should become an ambassador of that colourful dream.
We hope he'll be on our side sooner rather than later.