BOISE – Up in Section 27 at Taco Bell Arena, on the first day of Davis Cup tennis in Boise, a vocal contingent of fans sported a different sort of red, white and blue.
A few dozen Serbian fans, most of whom immigrated to Boise in recent years, congregated to support their national team and national hero, Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player.
“It means everything to me,” said Svetlana Hansen, of Meridian, who moved to Idaho in 2004 after marrying a Boise native. “To be around all the other Serbians, it felt like I was back home – and I haven’t been home in 10 years.”
Serbia and the United States split their two singles matches Friday, with Djokovic and American Sam Querrey picking up victories. Two singles matches are scheduled today.
In the best-of-five quarterfinal doubles match Saturday, Serbia’s Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic defeated the U.S. team, Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan.
Groups of Serbs came from Canada, Seattle, Portland and Chicago to see the weekend’s action. One group drove from Salt Lake City early Friday morning directly to the arena, not bothering to check in at a hotel.
For a nation devastated by war and widely remembered for a NATO bombing campaign in 1999, the Serbian tennis team has been something to celebrate. It won the 2010 Davis Cup in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
“They are just great ambassadors of our country,” said Lazar Popovic, 23, who came to Boise four years ago. “I think Serbia is sometimes seen in a bad light, but those players are what we’re all about, and hopefully our fans are a good example, too.”
Most Serbians gathered in Section 27, but those elsewhere weren’t hard to miss. They were waving the nation’s double-headed eagle flag, or had it draped around them. They sported homemade T-shirts with Djokovic’s image and multicolored scarves. They made their presence known.
Captain Bogdan Obradovic said, “Maybe there are more Serbs out of Serbia than in Serbia.”
Said Djokovic: “In this competition, the support of the crowd can play an important role in the matches. That’s why it’s good to see that Serbian people come in numbers. I’m sure they put a lot of effort. We appreciate that.”
The crowd was pro-American overall, and combined with the passionate Serbian fan base, it made for a good atmosphere on the first day of competition, U.S. captain Jim Courier said.
The announced attendance was 8,115.
“Boise turned out nicely for us,” Courier said. “We’re really happy with the energy in the building. Atmosphere was very Davis Cup. Now you have a taste of it.”
During Friday’s broadcast of the two singles matches, the Rev. Nektarios Serfes of Boise was shown, and the Greek Orthodox priest’s contributions aiding Serbs was highlighted. Serfes met with the Serbian team earlier last week and spoke of his humanitarian efforts, particularly in the war-torn Kosovo region.
“They’re really, really having a tough time there,” said Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, who lost to Querrey in a five-set thriller. “Yeah, he was really nice. He’s a great person. He’s also going there, trying to help Serbian people there, and bring them what they need.”
A few local Serbs had organized a Saturday night party in Meridian for those who came from all corners.
“I think in greater numbers, we can help the team more, and just for us, to see so many of us around, more than I obviously normally see, is pretty great,” Popovic said.
Following the final match Friday, Hansen and fellow Meridian resident and Serbian native Zorica Jokic stood anxiously in front of Boise State’s basketball facility. A team representative returned two items – a Serbian flag and a T-shirt – that the pair had given to him with a goal in mind. And their mission was accomplished – both were signed by Djokovic.
“I was persistent,” Jokic said. “I didn’t want to go home without it.”
Far from home, Hansen and Jokic beamed as they clutched their signed items, amazed that a national hero not only had done them a favor, but was right here in their adopted hometown.
“It’s so amazing he did that for us,” Hansen said. “To have that happen, see the best in the world, from my country, here where I live, it doesn’t get better than that.”