What do you think would happen if, at the Men’s Final of the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, in front of millions of worldwide TV viewers, the fans of an American darling like John Isner were pissed off at what they viewed as a poor call by the ref and shouted out, obviously in English: “The ref’s a faggot!”

What I can’t imagine is that nothing would happen. Very likely those fans might be told to leave. Possibly other spectators would chastise those pernicious hecklers. A melee might even occur. I could easily imagine the press mentioning it. In subsequent days, perhaps Isner would disavow himself from those remarks and very likely chastise those fans for spreading hate speech.

I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t go unnoticed—like what actually occurred at Sunday’s Men’s French Open Final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Djokovic’s fans actually shouted out in Serbian “Sudija pederu!” which translates to “Ref, you are faggot!”

Shouting in a language that is not widely comprehended makes this kind of heckling very difficult to discern and control, let alone bust. But it’s still important for the public to understand and for the ITF to take action.

I realize there will always be crazy outlier fans, extreme sorts who don’t represent any group but are just misanthropic jerks. And, of course, shouting in a language that is not widely comprehended makes this kind of heckling very difficult to discern and control, let alone bust. But it’s still important for the public to understand and more importantly for the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to take action.

But before we go there, I want to first point out that unlike, say, the World Cup, where the game is about nationality (since each team represents a specific country), Grand Slam tournament tennis, like most individual player sports, is more about individual excellence.

We fans are usually aware our favorite players’ nationalities, but it’s often not a major factor in choosing to support them. I am a huge Roger Federer fan. That he is Swiss makes little to no difference to me and millions of others who share my fandom. I would consider him the most elegant player ever and the greatest ambassador for the sport as well as an exemplary human being, no matter what country he happened to be from.

To this point, at Grand Slam events, although you will certainly have hometown favorites and sometimes a higher concentration of fans from the player’s country, there are rarely overt displays of nationalism from a specific player’s fans. Except for Novak Djokovic. During the last set of yesterday’s match, they chanted the Serbian National Anthem.

There is no doubt that Novak Djokovic is an amazing, ultra-talented tennis player. He’s still a young man and will end his career as one of the greatest tennis players in history. His win against Andy Murray, his first on the red clay of Roland Garros, means he now holds all four of the Grand Slam titles simultaneously. He has 12 total Slam titles under his belt and is likely to add at least a few more.

Nationalistic pride is not necessarily a horrible thing—unless it promotes nativistic hatred toward those outside your tribe.

Last year I saw an interview with Djokovic on Charlie Rose. They discussed his childhood in Belgrade, where he obviously felt the impact of the air bombings during the Serbian-Kosovo conflict. What was not mentioned was that those air bombings came from NATO forces, primarily US led, seeking to stop Serbia’s wholesale genocide of Kosovo Muslims.

This is an ultra-important distinction. No matter what the young Djokovic did or didn’t know during those bombings, his fans today—in addition to hurling homophobic epithets at a referee—sing the anthem of a nation that felt empowered enough, backed by Russia, to attempt to annex Bosnia, another entirely separate sovereignty, and slaughter Bosnian civilian populations.

Undeniably, there was an overt display of nationalism and hate on view at the Grand Slam in Paris—the kind of thing that would ordinarily, and correctly, not be tolerated if most people understood what was going on.

Early in Djokovic’s career, he would celebrate wins by pumping his hands in the air and unfolding a three-finger salute that most of us wouldn’t recognize. That particular salute is, in fact, the nationalistic salute of the Serbian right wing. He has since curbed the gesture, although he still, on occasion, to the delight of some fans, subtly configures his hand into that otherwise secret salute.

Nationalistic pride is not necessarily a horrible thing—unless it promotes nativistic hatred toward those outside your tribe.

Ali was an important piece in the fabric of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a movement which helped end the war. Individuals, particularly those with a massive platform, can make a big difference. And now Djokovic is in a similar position from which to do so.

The most memorable and legendary individuals throughout history are often remembered for their sacrifice to causes bigger than themselves. A few days ago Muhammad Ali died, and we remembered once again why he was at one point the most famous person on earth and why he’ll never be forgotten. Clearly he was among the best of the best boxers, but he will be mythologized less for his pugilistic prowess, which was mighty, and more for speaking truth to power.

At the height of his popularity and massive earning ability he refused the draft and spoke out against the Vietnam war. He famously said “I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger” and immediately claimed a kind of personal integrity that legends are built on. He went to jail for his beliefs and had to regain his title, but his actions and sacrifice redefined what heroic meant. Ultimately, he was an important piece in the fabric of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a movement which helped end the war.

Individuals, particularly those with a massive platform, can make a big difference.

And now Djokovic is in a similar position from which to do so. He is a brilliant athlete on the rise toward breaking all kinds of tennis records. He’s known internationally. He could and should declare himself a man of the world and publicly disavow any hate-filled rhetoric that flies from his charged fans. He could, while still celebrating and acknowledging his national heritage, tamp down the extreme nationalism among his fans, which feeds ultra-right xenophobia and violence. He could, at the risk of losing some of his local backing, be a voice for peace and moderation and gain the respect and support of a much larger world fan base.

Great athletes, like celebrities and other public figures, do have a greater social responsibility than the rest of us. How they comport themselves sets an example to fans. What they say is heard by many. So is what they don’t say. Djokovic has a unique opportunity to become much bigger than simply a terrific tennis player. He can actually also be a great, even historic, healer in a region and world that is extraordinarily in need of healing.

Learn more about author Loren-Paul Caplin here and follow him on Twitter here.

Deep thoughts? Share them below...