BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Novak Djokovic is again under scrutiny in his native Serbia — this time because of inviting Goran Ivanisevic to join his coaching team at Wimbledon.
Serbia’s state-controlled tabloids called it a “scandalous” partnership between the top-ranked Serb and the former Wimbledon champion from Croatia.
Croatia fought a bloody war for independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia in the 1990s and nationalist sentiments still run high in both countries.
“Goran comes from Croatia, I’m from Serbia. We both come from the country that was once called Yugoslavia,” Djokovic said, explaining his decision to recruit Ivanisevic. “When I was small and started watching tennis, I watched his match against (Pete) Sampras. Everyone in the region supported him (Ivanisevic).”
Djokovic, whose mother was born in Croatia, had faced similar public criticism when he said he would support Croatia after Serbia exited last year’s soccer World Cup at the group stage. Croatia went on to the final where it lost against France.
Pro-government Belgrade tabloid Informer quoted former NBA center Darko Milicic as saying that Djokovic’s move to hire Ivanisevic is “an insult to his fans.”
Milicic said that whenever Djokovic “displays outbursts of love for Croats” he should think of his Serbian fans “who have gone through harassment, expulsions and loss of their loved ones during the war.”
The tabloids printed an interview Ivanisevic had with the New York Times during the war in which he was quoted as saying he wished “to have some Serbs standing in front of me” while he had shooting practice with a machine gun.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist, took a softer line: “It is good for our country that Novak Djokovic has good relations with Ivanisevic so that the past clashes are overcome.”
Ivanisevic, who won the men’s singles title in 2001, has told Serbian media he received “a rather unexpected call” from Djokovic ahead of the grass court tournament.
“It’s all unusual,” Ivanisevic said, adding he was trying to postpone some obligations that may force him to leave Wimbledon in the second week.