Novak Djokovic: Serbia’s ace

Novak Djokovic, Wimbledon tennis champion 2011Novak Djokovic’s victory at Wimbledon on Sunday, besides underlining his rank as the world’s top tennis player, has confirmed him as the best public relations asset available to his home country, Serbia.

Over 100,000 people turned out in central Belgrade to welcome him back on Monday night, although he now spends most of his time abroad. Djokovic has made the troubled country feel better about itself and its prospects, and might also help others see Serbia in a more positive light.

The former Yugoslav republic has struggled to overcome image problems since the wars of the 1990s – in which neighbours and much of the world saw Serbia as the aggressor.

“Novak really did a great thing for our country”, said Boris Tadic, the country’s pro-western president, joking that he could hand over his duties to Djokovic without much worry.

Blic, a Belgrade newspaper, proclaimed that politicians should follow Djokovic’s example of diligence and dedication, particularly as Serbia embarks on the long, hard road of EU accession.

The arrest in May of Ratko Mladic, a fugitive Bosnian Serb former army commander (and a big part of Serbia’s international image problem), has made EU candidacy probable by the end of this year, and accession talks with Brussels likely to open not long after.

But the EU monitoring apparatus – the thousands of bureaucrats overseeing Croatia’s reform progress for the last six years – will now focus most of its attention on Serbia.

With that in mind, the state should work harder on promotion, rather than rely on a successful individual like Djokovic, said Milka Forcan, a marketing specialist and former executive at Delta Holding, the country’s largest private sector company.

“Novak with his results has already influenced a better image of Serbia, and his position as world Number One and winning the Wimbledon championship is going to underline that,” Forcan said. “The state [also] has to work in an organised and planned way on constant promotion of the country.”

Djokovic has done more to improve his country’s image than “all of our diplomacy”, a former ambassador to France said. The Serbian ambassador to the UN said the tennis win prompted friendly comments among diplomats, but this made no difference with regard to other countries’ political stances toward Serbia.

Djojkovic and other young tennis players practiced in a dry swimming pool during Nato’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999, before going on to international coaching and stardom. Ana Ivanovic’s progress to the Wimbledon semi-finals four years ago started stirring wide interest in the sport in Serbia.

Djokovich’s family owns a ‘Novak’ sports cafe and is investing in a tennis centre to be built in Belgrade at a cost of €10m euros.

The Serbian Chamber of Commerce last December recognised the tennis star’s PR potential, naming him, as an individual, the “Best Serbian Brand”. Djokovic has appeared in television advertising for Telekom Srbija, the state-run phone company, and Idea supermarkets, a Croatian-owned chain.

A Croatian public relations executive commented after the Wimbledon final: “This is finally one positive global story about Serbia, instead of Ratko Mladic.