Discover more from Sports Politika
Djokovic brings Serbia-Kosovo tensions to French Open
The 22-time grand slam champion has been accused of stoking ethnic tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
With a playing style that fuses athleticism, finesse, and a touch of magic, Novak Djokovic is an artist painting his masterpiece with every stroke of the racket.
Yet while his playing style is as captivating as it is formidable, his off-court politics leave a lot to be desired.
Following his straight-sets win against Aleksandar Kovacevic in the opening round of the French Open Monday, the 36-year-old took advantage of the customary act of signing the camera lens to offer a political message: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop violence.”
Sports Politika needs your support. If you believe in independent and uncompromising reporting, please consider becoming a paid subscriber today.
Djokovic’s comments were in reference to rising tensions and violence in Kosovo following local elections in April. The unrest is mainly situated in northern Kosovo, where Serbians make up the majority of the population (but still less than 5% of Kosovo’s overall population).
Ethnic Serbs refused to take part in the local elections last month and remain unwilling to recognize Kosovo’s state institutions. The election boycott followed a mass resignation of Serb officials from the area in November 2022, which included judges, police officers, and the mayors of four ethnic Serb majority towns. When local elections were finally held on April 23, the average turnout across four municipalities was less than 3.5 percent.
Despite the questionable legitimacy of the elections, newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors attempted to assume office in several towns in northern Kosovo by accessing the municipal buildings with the help of riot police. Groups of ethnic Serbs clashed with local police and NATO-led peacekeepers after the demonstrators attempted to block ethnic Albanian mayors from taking office. 30 NATO soldiers and 52 Serb protesters were reportedly injured during the clashes.
The unrest fuelled renewed fears stemming from the 1998-99 Kosovo War, which led to more than 10,000 deaths and prompted a NATO intervention. Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians declared independence in 2008, though Serbia still considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its territory. There is still not comprehensive agreement between the former wartime foes.
In his post-match press conference with Serbian media, Djokovic revealed that “as a Serb, everything that’s happening in Kosovo hurts me a lot.”
“This is the least I could have done. I feel the responsibility as a public figure – doesn’t matter in which field – to give support,” he continued. “Especially as a son of a man born in Kosovo, I feel the need to give my support to them and to Serbia. I don’t know what the future brings for Serbian people and for Kosovo, but it’s necessary to show support and demonstrate unity in these kinds of situations.”
Djokovic’s reference to the “entirety of Serbia” reflects the policy of the Serbian government, which has not recognized the country’s independence.
The 22-time grand slam winner also added politically-charged statements such as “Kosovo is our hearthstone, our stronghold, our most important monasteries are there”—a reference to the numerous medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries that are in Kosovo, as well as the 1389 battle where Ottoman Turks and Serbia armies clashed in a struggle for Kosovo.
Djokovic’s statements drew ire from Kosovo’s’ tennis federation, which accused the World No. 3 of stoking tensions in an already volatile situation.
"The comments made by Novak Djokovic at the end of his Roland Garros match against Aleksandar Kovacevic, his statements at the post-match press conference and his Instagram post are regrettable."Kosovo tennis federation president Jeton Hadergjonaj said in a statement. "Novak Djokovic was already the author of similar actions in the past. Despite a general message against violence, the statement 'Kosovo is the heart of Serbia' and further statements after the match, made by such a public figure, on the occasion of a worldwide event like the French Open, directly result in raising the level of tension between the two states, Serbia and Kosovo,"
French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said Wednesday that Djokovic’s political message was “militant” and “not appropriate.”
“When it comes to defending human rights and bringing people together around universal values, a sportsperson is free to do so,” she said, adding that Djokovic’s message “must not be repeated.”
This is not the first time that Djokovic’s views have courted controversy. He has long been vocal about his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which led to him being barred from several Grand Slams around the world, including two in 2022. He also organized a tournament during the height of the pandemic in 2020 that resulted in several players testing positive for Covid.
Although Djokovic’s political messaging surrounding Kosovo has drawn criticism from the international community, it is worth noting that there are no rules prohibiting players from making political statements at grand slams. This likely explains why the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has not opened a disciplinary case.
It is also worth noting that Djokovic has some personal experience in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. His father, Srdjan, was born in Mitrovica, a city in Kosovo. The World No. 3 also lived through NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign to put an end to the atrocities committed by Yugoslavia’s then-president Slobodan Milosevic’s troops against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. It remains the largest military operation in NATO history.
“Those times are certainly something that I don’t wish for anybody to experience,” Djokovic said in a 2015 interview with CNN. “Two-and-a-half months, every single day and night, bombs coming into the city. We saw planes flying over our heads, and literally rockets and bombs landing half a mile away.”
Djokovic also recounted the traumatic events from his childhood in the first chapter of his 2013 autobiography, which was titled “Backhands and Bomb Shelters.”
“I remember the sandy, dusty, metallic shell in the air, and how the whole city seemed to glow like a ripe tangerine,” Djokovic said in his book. “Even today, loud sounds fill me with fear.”
While Djokovic is clearly influenced by his childhood trauma, similar politically-charged statements are not uncommon at major sporting events.
A Euro 2020 qualifying match between the Czech Republic, Czech fans waved Serbian flags during the Kosovo national anthem and later chanted “Kosovo is still Serbia.” Several Kosovo fans were also assaulted near the supporters’ hotel, leading to a handful of arrests.
During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, The Guardian reported that Serbian supporters displayed “fascist slogans” that were “closely associated with atrocities committed in the Kosovan and Bosnian wars.” They also reportedly aimed racist chants at ethnic Albanians during Serbia’s match against Switzerland (two of `Switzerland’s players, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, have Kosovan roots).
Serbia was already facing a FIFA investigation at the tournament for hanging a flag in their dressing room showing Kosovo as part of their territory, along with the words “We do not surrender.” The flag was also displayed by Serbian fans during their 2-0 defeat to Brazil last November.
Djokovic’s statement may not have been as menacing as those displayed at recent football matches, but it was still rooted in a clear disregard for Kosovo’s statehood. His views are not uncommon among Serbians, as evidenced from the recent clashes. However, the fact that he opted to share his message at a major sports event is a stark reminder that the longstanding troubles afflicting the Balkan region are far from over.
Sports Politika is a newsletter about the intersection of sports and authoritarian politics. If you like what you see, upgrade to a paid subscription, like the post, and share it with your friends.