This week the contrails of Balkan politics streamed across the red clay of Roland Garros as Novak Djokovic addressed an issue nobody before had been able to resolve – the former Yugoslavia.
As you do in the second Grand Slam event of the year, you decide to write “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” on the camera after your first round victory.
To the great unwashed it seemed no different from writing “New York is the heart of America” on a camera at the US Open in Flushing Meadow.
But then armies didn’t go to war over New York as they did for Kosovo in the 1990s and New York is not yet seeking independence from the USA as Kosovo did from Serbia in 2008.
As Djokovic celebrated his 12th birthday in May 1999, a decade-long crisis was tearing the Balkans apart with Belgrade a focal point. As air-raid sirens sounded across the city, families with friends and neighbours fled to the house of Djokovic’s grandfather Vladimir, where they filed down the stairs and into the safety of the basement to shelter from the bombing.
More than 20 years on, there is still tension over how Nato bombed Serbia for 11 weeks in an effort to push Serbian forces out of Kosovo, accusing them of atrocities against ethnic Albanians. Djokovic remembers the bombardment, so he has more than enough skin in the game to hold an opinion.
The fallout this week was swift. Kosovo’s tennis federation accused Djokovic of aggravating an already tense 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,” said president Jeton Hadergjonaj.
He accused Djokovic of using his status as a well-known personality to stir tensions.
“Novak Djokovic was already the author of similar actions in the past,” he said.
Jeta Xharra, a human-rights activist in Kosovo, chimed in and said in an interview that Djokovic’s statements represented a “medieval mentality” that she compared to the thinking that led Russia to invade Ukraine last year.
“It’s appalling for a man of his stature to use sports to push a fascist mentality,” she said.
Dozens of Nato peacekeeping soldiers were injured this week in clashes with Serb protesters in the Kosovo town of Zvecan, where Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, grew up. The issue is a festering sore and Djokovic decided to pick it. It’s not his first time to court controversy.
Last year he was denied entry to Australia to play the Australian Open, when he failed to meet the requirements for an exemption to Covid rules after cheerily announcing on social media that he was granted exemption. However, his visa for entry was revoked and he was detained at the airport for about eight hours and later deported, the Australian Open tournament director revealing that he had failed to provide a proof of a medical exemption.
In 2020 Djokovic offered the theory that people’s energy can change the state of the world around them and suggested that humans can alter the chemical make up of food and water with their thoughts and emotions.
The following year his inner diva kicked in and he refused to wear a mask at the Melbourne event as part of safety measures. It came after he sent a list of demands to the organisers including private houses for players with a private tennis court for training and a reduction of the quarantine period.
During the pandemic, he formed the Adria Tour in the Balkans. Joined by other players from the international circuit including Aleksander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov, tickets were sold as the tournament wasn’t held behind closed doors. It drew jeers from the medical world before closing when players including Dimitrov tested positive for the virus.
In January, his father, who was born in Kosovo, was seen on video at the Australian Open posing with a fan who was holding a Russian flag. More than 100 countries have recognised Kosovo. Serbia and Russia have not.
Give Djokovic a drum and he will bang it. He will then plug into the controversy and recharge on the consequences. And he clearly has no qualms about his statement about Kosovo.
“I would say it again,” he said. “But I don’t need to because you have my quotes if you want to reflect on that. Of course I’m aware that a lot of people would disagree. But it is what it is. It’s something that I stand for. So that’s all. Drama-free grand slam, I don’t think it can happen for me. I guess that drives me, as well.”
Driven by drama – it has been the theme of his career. Using the current strife in Kosovo as a motivational aid to push towards a record 23rd Grand Slam in Paris and maybe a 24th next month at Wimbledon is a high stakes game.
But, at 36, Djokovic has manufactured an energy giver to keep his appetite whet and his desire to get through the first week sharp and tournament ready. He can contrive conflict and turn it into a positive enterprise.
[Kosovo is] “our hearthstone, our stronghold. Our most important monasteries are there,” he said drawing the strings of the religious tensions.
His nickname may be Djoker, but in Grand Slam mode Novak Djokovic is never the clown.