The Athletes of Slavic History

/ by John Bills

Novak Djokovic.
The linguists of the Slavic world had to go up against the might of empires and government, for their voices to be heard. The Slavic women’s rights activists took on the same opponents and then some, clawing towards what should be a given, despite every single gavel in power being hostile to their cause. Saying that the Slavs have had to fight for respect is almost redundant at this point. But what of those blessed with natural talent?


Modern sporting history is still full of Slavic individuals and teams rising up against far richer opponents, dominating where they theoretically have no right to, taking the short end of the stick and making championships out of it. Where better to start than the story of the most dominant male tennis player of the decade? Born in Belgrade in 1987, Novak Djoković came from a truly Yugoslav family, the son of a Montenegrin father and a Croatian mother, but he always considered himself a Serb.


Fast-forward to 2011, and Djoković was on top of the world. In the 2011 season, Novak won more prize money in a single season than anyone on the ATP Tour before him, winning three of the four Grand Slam tournaments along the way. Djoković didn’t lose a single match in 2011 until the semi-finals of the French Open in June, his 42nd match of the season.


Djoković went on to dominate men’s tennis for the next five years, winning 11 of the next 21 Grand Slams (no other player won more than five), and losing six of the other 10 finals. For the first half of this decade, Novak Djoković was, far and away, the most dominant player on the men’s tennis tour.


The Serb’s list of achievements is truly staggering. His career-high of 16,950 ranking in mid-2016 points is a clear record, and at the time was more than the combined points of numbers two and three in the world. “Nole” is the only player to win 30-plus matches against Top 10 opponents in a single season, has a higher career match-winning percentage than anyone else, and he also holds the record for consecutive Grand Slam match victories, a staggering 30. He also happens to be the only one of the Big Four (Djoković, Murray, Federer, Nadal) to hold a winning record in head-to-heads against the other three.


Djoković is one of many tennis superstars to have emerged from the Slavic sphere, many of whom find themselves at the top of the game today. Djoković, Marin Čilić (Croatia) and Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria) are nestled safely in the men’s top 10, with Montenegro-born Miloš Raonić sat at number 11. Czechia’s own Karolina Pliškova is currently sitting pretty at the top of the women’s game.


It is another Czech-born tennis player who takes home the crown for the greatest racquet-wielder to come from this part of the world, however. Martina Navratilova had her own hurdles to vault, but saying she cleared them with distance is doing the Prague-born player a huge disservice. Navratilova was a child tennis prodigy, winning the Czechoslovak National Championships at the age of just 15. Three years later, she progressed to the semi-finals of the women’s US Open, but that wasn’t her biggest battle of that week.


Immediately after being defeated by her soon-to-be great rival, Chris Evert, in the last four, Navratilova marched straight to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York and informed them of her decision to stay in the USA and seek asylum. She was just 18 years-old at the time, putting her personal and professional life on the line in the process. If her request had been denied, then that may well have been the last we heard of the burgeoning tennis superstar. Luckily for Martina and the tennis world, she was accepted.


Martina Navratilova went on to dominate women’s tennis in the 1980s, reaching nine consecutive Wimbledon finals and setting the Open Era win streak records in singles (74) and doubles (109). She won everything there was to win in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Navratilova spent a whopping 332 weeks at number one in singles and 237 in doubles, making her the only player to spend more than 200 weeks at the top of both rankings. Marvelous Martina was a top 10 player for 20 straight years, and a top three star for 15 of them. Her success is incomparable.


All of which is impressive enough without taking into account Martina Navratilova’s importance off the court. In the same year that she made the decision to leave what was then Czechoslovakia forever, Navratilova also came out as bisexual, becoming one of the first professional athletes to do so. Her attitude was a thing of beauty; her justified belligerence shining through with an attitude of “yeah, so what?,” the sort of matter-of-fact demeanor that the world needs more of. Navratilova confronted homophobia head-on throughout her career and after it (she’s arguably the most vocal anti-Trump athlete in the world today), cementing her as one of modern history’s most important human beings, and I’m not just talking about baselines and volleys.


Even in the sporting world, an industry where we are led to believe that the cream rises to the top, the talented from the Slavic world were faced with obstacles when trying to prove themselves. Novak Djoković was first noticed playing tennis on a mountain, and has had to fight the media’s obsession with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal whilst Novak was dominating the game.


Martina Navratilova had to put her own life and career in danger for a chance to succeed, walking into an asylum center when most people her age were learning that alcohol isn’t great and that the house always wins. Mariusz Pudzianowski was born in the middle of nowhere in Poland, and worked obsessively to become the top professional in his field, an all-time great, and the strongest man in the entire world, and a man who is literally able to deadlift a cow. Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, faces constant ridicule for his achievements, efforts that have seen him swim the entire length of the Amazon, Danube and Mississippi Rivers (among others) in an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of water. Mile Stojkoski runs ultra-marathons in a wheelchair, raising money for the disabled in Macedonia, yet has seemingly had to put up with mind-numbing bureaucracy more than most. And not to forget Slovenia’s Tina Maze, arguably the best downhill skier in history.


The Slavic nations will continue to churn out top class athletes as time goes by, and these athletes will continue to rise to the top despite the less-than-favorable odds. I should get to work on An Illustrated History of Slavic Sporting Misery, I suppose…

John Bills

begrudgingly writes for a living, although sometimes he’d prefer just to read. When he was a child, John asked his mother to promise that he would never go to Bosnia, so it was somewhat of a surprise when he went to live in Mostar in his mid 20s. Now living in Prague, John is the author of An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery, a love letter to the good and great of Slavic history. You can pre-order this tome by visiting, or by mailing John is a fan of good handwriting and darts.