One of the world’s biggest sports stars has used the French Open to deliver a political message about an international crisis. What did Novak Djokovic write and why is it so controversial?
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.” When Novak Djokovic wrote those nine words on a camera lens at the French Open he waded into an international crisis.
The 22-time Grand Slam champion is Serbia’s most famous export. His hero status is epitomised by a seven-foot statue outside his family’s restaurant in Belgrade, which depicts Djokovic as a medieval warrior holding the Serbian flag.
He grew up surrounded by violence. In the late 1990s, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought for independence from Serbian rule. Serbia responded by expelling hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians and carrying out numerous war crimes. In response, Nato bombed Serbia.
Djokovic was living in Belgrade when the western forces attacked his city, sheltering with his family as bombs dropped around him. Although Nato justified the campaign as “humanitarian”, a way to precipitate an end to the conflict, thousands of civilians were killed.
“There is no justification for bombing, for killing somebody, for taking away their home,” Djokovic said in 2020. “That has made me and everybody in Serbia very angry.”
Serbia and Kosovo still have an uneasy relationship. In 2008, Kosovo formally declared independence from Serbia. But Serbia never recognised it. And in the past few days, Kosovo has installed ethnic Albanian mayors in majority Serb areas, provoking clashes between Kosovan forces and local Serbs. Dozens of people have been injured. The Serbian president has put his army on high alert. The situation could deteriorate further.
It’s against this backdrop that Novak Djokovic followed up a win at the French Open, watched by millions worldwide, with his message in support of Kosovo’s place in Serbia.
The French Open has no rule against political statements. But Djokovic risks inflaming tensions, particularly given his past actions. After Serbia’s national tennis team won a tournament in 2020, Djokovic sang a song that marked massacres committed by his country. He’s also been pictured with a notorious commander whose unit helped carry out the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
Europe can’t afford the standoff between Kosovo and Serbia to escalate into another full-blown conflict. With Moscow and Beijing on Serbia’s side, and the US and much of Europe recognising Kosovo’s independence, more than the future of two countries could be at stake.
Novak Djokovic may have a big part to play. At 36, he won’t be playing tennis forever. Politics could be his next arena.