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Tennis star may bring shine back to Serbia's tarnished reputation

He's everything his country wants to be: confident, successful, comfortable in his own skin and able, at last, to put a violent past behind him.

It's not often that a tennis star embodies the hopes of an entire nation. But in Novak Djokovic — the world's No. 2 men's player, whose perfect win streak this year was finally snapped here Friday at the French Open — Serbia has found what it thinks is the perfect pitchman for a rebranding campaign, someone who'll bring back the shine to its tarnished reputation.

For years, the Balkan nation has been a pariah because of its role in the bloody 1992-95 Bosnian war, the conflict that added "ethnic cleansing" to the political lexicon. The Serbian government on May 31 made a great leap forward in rehabilitating itself by extraditing Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of the biggest European atrocity since World War II, the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mladic, 69, in in The Hague awaiting trial on charges of genocide. At home, many of his compatriots hope that his grizzled mug shot, beamed around the world, can stop being the unofficial face of Serbia, replaced instead by the grinning, fun-loving but focused young Djokovic.

"We do not want the world to remember us for our war commanders, but as the country of tennis star Novak Djokovic," Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor, Bruno Vekaric, said upon Mladic's arrest May 26.

To visit Serbia now is to see that reboot well underway, at least domestically. Serbia 2.0 can't seem to get enough of its chosen icon, whose slightly goofy smile stalks you from billboards, posters and the covers of gossip magazines. It's blown up to gigantic proportions on the side of a building in Belgrade, the capital, along with a tally of Djokovic's 41 consecutive victories this year.

Luckily for Serbia, Djokovic is returning the love. At news conferences and in interviews, the 24-year-old athlete frequently talks about the pride he takes in being Serbian, about how his homeland is recovering from its war-torn past and how his greatest achievement wasn't winning his two Grand Slam titles but the Davis Cup championship in December for his country.

"This is the best moment of my career and probably of my nation. This is like winning the World Cup for us," an emotional Djokovic declared, after half the Serbian population tuned in to watch the final against France.

"We put a lot of effort into improving the image of our country," he said recently. "The history of our country is cruel. We have to face those issues, or, should I say, we had to. Not anymore, I hope, because we are going in the right direction, and we are ready to forgive, ready to move on."

But whether victims of aggressive Serbian nationalism are so ready to forgive, and whether some Serbs themselves are ready to forget the horrors committed ostensibly in their name, in pursuit of a "Greater Serbia" free of Croats and Bosnian Muslims, is another matter.

This is where the genial patriotism of Djokovic gets trickier. If on the one hand there are Serbian chauvinists who consider Mladic a hero and the government a traitor for giving him up, on the other are some liberal Serbs who recoil from even mild expressions of patriotic or nationalist feeling.

New Serbia isn't fully at ease with itself. The sight of Djokovic's rowdy fans draped in the Serbian flag in the bleachers is enough to unsettle some Serbs, even though supporters of players from other countries do exactly the same thing without comment. No one criticizes fans of Roger Federer, who beat Djokovic in the French Open semifinal, for waving the Swiss colors.

Then again, Swiss fans don't get into brawls. At the 2009 Australian Open, dozens of spectators of Serbian and Croatian descent were evicted from the tournament grounds after hurling abuse — and chairs — at each other after Djokovic's win against a Bosnia-born American player. A woman was knocked unconscious.

At this year's Australian Open, in January, Djokovic was the voice of tolerance, appealing for calm before his match against Croatian player Ivan Dodig.

"We are very good friends, actually, off the court, all of us Serb and Croatian players. There's no reason to create any kind of bad feeling about our countries," said Djokovic, who went on to win his second Grand Slam title.

His diplomacy seems to be the product of bitter experience. Although he steers clear now of controversial political statements — he sidestepped questions here in Paris about Mladic's arrest, saying sports and politics don't mix — three years ago Djokovic sent a videotaped message of support to a rally in Belgrade slamming independence for Kosovo.

His father's side of the family is from Kosovo. As a child, Djokovic was terrified by the NATO warplanes that bombed Belgrade in 1999 to stop Serbian armed offensives against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. ("When I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized.")

Critics seized on Djokovic's comments to the rally as evidence of the nastiness lurking beneath even the acceptable face of Serbian patriotism.

"I don't want to expose my opinion on that too much because they will use it against me," he said warily, when asked about the episode in a subsequent interview.

For the moment, he's happy to keep on expressing how proud he is to be Serbian without getting drawn into uncomfortable specifics. And his countrymen are happy to project onto him their aspirations for a New Serbia.

With his loss at the French Open, the next goal for Djokovic, who says he's feeling particularly fit nowadays in part thanks to a gluten-free diet, is to conquer Wimbledon, which begins this month.

The last time someone from the Balkans won the men's title was 10 years ago. That player was Goran Ivanisevic, a Croat.

Now Djokovic and Serbia want their moment in the sun, as little by little they seek to banish the shadows that hang over their past.

henry.chu@latimes.com

Chu was recently on assignment in Belgrade.

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