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Djokovic Family Takes Serbia Open From Belgrade To Bosnia, And The 'Edge' Of Legality

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates with the trophy after winning the Australian Open last month.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates with the trophy after winning the Australian Open last month.

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Serbia Open tennis tournament, run by relatives of Novak Djokovic, faces local challenges stemming from its relocation from Serbia to a Serb-majority region of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, a local official has acknowledged.

The biggest immediate concern is the construction of a 6,000-seat center court near an existing tennis center in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, before world No. 1 Djokovic and other star players show up to entertain fans there in April.

Banja Luka's mayor says the project and the arrival of a major Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournament in his city are in the "national interest."

But after a decade of politicized snags and irregularities surrounding the tournament in the Djokovics' native Serbia, shortcuts and a lack of transparency around the multimillion-dollar, publicly funded project in Bosnia threaten to turn the event into a double fault for Balkan tennis royalty.

Bosnia is made up of a Bosniak and Croat federation along with the Republika Srpska, whose leadership has assiduously whipped up Serbian nationalism across ex-Yugoslavia's former borders with help from Belgrade and even threatened to break up the ethnically fragile country.

Work began two months ago in Banja Luka despite the fact that Republika Srpska's Spatial Planning, Ecology, and Construction Ministry only issued a permit for the start of preparatory work on January 20.

"Of course, you have to be brave, to make moves that are on the edge of legal norms but are in accordance with them and morally correct," Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service last week.

The regulatory plans envisage a congress hall at the site once the tennis tournament returns to Serbia.

As of last week, concrete had already been laid at the facility and supporting columns were being erected.

Cutting Corners

According to the mayor's estimates on February 9, the entire project should cost at least 11.7 million euros ($12.6 million), with 7.6 million euros provided by the city of Banja Luka and the remainder by Republika Srpska's government. Earlier estimates stated that the price of the project was likely to be 7.7 million euros.

Novak Djokovic's uncle Goran (left to right), mother Dijana, father Srdjan, and brother Djordje attend a news conference in Belgrade in January 2022.
Novak Djokovic's uncle Goran (left to right), mother Dijana, father Srdjan, and brother Djordje attend a news conference in Belgrade in January 2022.

Although it represents a significant investment of public funds, there were no public tenders for suppliers or contractors because the process was left to the Republika Srpska Tennis Association. The absence of tenders can significantly accelerate such projects because it helps avoid the requirement of a 45-day window for bids and eliminates appeals.

Novak Djokovic's younger brother and the tournament's organizer, Djordje Djokovic, founded a company called Legacy International in Banja Luka in November 2022; he owns a similarly named company in Belgrade that organizes tournaments in Serbia.

Transparency International's local arm told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that handing over the selection of contractors to the Republika Srpska Tennis Association also risked appearing intended to "circumvent the law on public procurement," although it made no accusations of wrongdoing.

"Unfortunately, in such situations, when the law is being circumvented, we don't have any insight, control of how such funds are being spent, how the bidders were reached, or how much it really cost," Srdjan Traljic of Transparency International in Bosnia said.

He suggested it could be viewed as bad practice. "If the city and the [Republika Srpska] government wanted to help the Republika Srpska Tennis Association, they'd know how to do it, based on a public call, through projects, through decisions by assemblies, parliaments," he said, "but it was never done this way."

But such hurried processes lacking transparency in the past, he added, "have usually ended up in some kind of corruption scandal."

The Tennis Association did not respond to RFE/RL's inquiry regarding project details and construction deadlines.

The Republika Srpska inspectorate told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it visited the construction site the week after the permit was issued and "no irregularities were found."

The Serbia Open's organizers did not respond to RFE/RL's questions about the tournament's details.

Persistent Concerns In Belgrade

The Serbia Open was launched in 2009 and held four times -- with Djokovic and other top players participating -- before it was stymied in 2013 when Belgrade-area municipal officials canceled the lease at the Milan Gale Muskatirovic Sports Center where it was hosted.

A public war of words alleging political motives for the collapse quickly broke out between officials and the tournament's organizer at the time, Family Sport, which was owned by Novak Djokovic's father, Srdjan.

The sprawling Novak Tennis Center in Belgrade has since attracted publicity not only for its ambition to cultivate a world-class tennis facility in the Balkans but also over persistent concerns about the absence of a rental contract and the legality of those upgrades before the city of Belgrade requested a retroactive exemption.

The Serbia Open was restarted in 2021 and continued in Belgrade through 2022.

Novak Djokovic meets with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, in February 2022.
Novak Djokovic meets with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, in February 2022.

Djordje Djokovic announced after last year's tournament that organizers would "temporarily move" it to Banja Luka in 2023 before returning to Belgrade in 2024.

Work would continue on the Novak Tennis Center in the meantime, he said, to give organizers "a better chance of applying for the ATP 500 license," a reference to the hierarchical points system of international tennis's governing body to give the event extra cache on a competitive and lucrative tour.

Djordje Djokovic acknowledged that Banja Luka had previously only hosted so-called "challenger" ATP tournaments. But he added that the new center court at the Republika Srpska facilities would make them "more than a perfect location for this kind of tournament."

A 'Messianic Figure' In Serbia

But the relocation of a tournament organized by the family of a Serbian national hero and called the Serbia Open to Republika Srpska could also prove controversial because of its implicit endorsement of the region's secessionist leadership.

Despite his standing as an all-time great, Djokovic has spent most of his record-setting career chasing the kind of public adulation and sponsorships given to Spaniard Rafael Nadal and recently retired Swiss Roger Federer.

He is widely regarded as the best Serbian athlete of all time and an unimpeachable hero to many Serbs. So much so that influential sportswriter and author Ben Rothenberg cited Djokovic's fanbase in a recent tirade, arguing that fervent nationalism was damaging world tennis.

Rothenberg described Djokovic as a "downright messianic figure, almost, in Serbia," and alluded to his appeal among flag-waving fans at the 2023 Australian Open in Melbourne, where Russian and Belarusian symbols and affiliations were banned over the invasion of Ukraine. At one point during his dominant run to the title in Australia, Djokovic was forced to defend his father against criticism for posing alongside fans with Russian flags and the "Z" symbol that signals support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Djokovic has received the Serbian government's highest civilian and military award, the Order of Karadjordje's Star, the Serbian Orthodox Church's Order of St. Sava, in addition to Serbian diaspora awards for contributing to the reputation of Serbs around the world.

But his proximity to Serbian ethno-nationalists in a region still scarred by horrific wars and ethnic cleansing three decades ago has been a source of controversy.

Djokovic accepted Republika Srpska's top honor from Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in 2020. The Order of the Republika Srpska was established by ethnic Serbs at the height of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, and previous recipients include former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of genocide during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia of the 1990s, and convicted war criminals like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and commander Ratko Mladic.

Dodik has spent years vowing to lead Republika Srpska's secession and, in the past year, has taken controversial steps to establish parallel Bosnian Serb institutions challenging the Bosnian central government's authority and strengthening inroads with Belgrade and Serbs' traditional ally, Moscow.

In September 2021, Djokovic was pictured at a wedding party alongside Dodik and notorious wartime paramilitary commander Milan Jolovic, whose Drina Wolves committed wartime atrocities in Republika Srpska.

Fighting Vaccination

To tennis fans with little interest in Balkan politics, Djokovic became an especially polarizing international figure during the COVID-19 pandemic, first expressing opposition to mandatory vaccines then organizing a Balkan tennis tournament that eschewed lockdowns and turned into a super-spreader event in mid-2020.

He was an early opponent of vaccine requirements to travel to international tennis events including the Australian and U.S. Opens as an infringement on "personal choice."

There was even speculation -- unconfirmed but based on irregularities disclosed in his entry documents -- that he had arranged a positive test result with complicit Serbian health officials prior to his disastrously failed bid to compete unvaccinated at the 2022 Australian Open.

The polarization became so glaring that influential former U.S. tennis great John McEnroe last year cautioned fans who'd robustly booed Djokovic at the French Open that "you may not like him as much as Nadal or Federer, but he's a credit to our game, for God's sakes."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Goran Katic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Banja Luka
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    Goran Katic

    Goran Katic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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