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At the French Open, Novak Djokovic storms the court and into controversy, again

PARIS – After everything that Novak Djokovic had put himself through over the past few years, the French Open began with the possibility, finally, of a Grand Slam tournament free of drama.

But three days into the Open, Djokovic has put himself at the centre of the mounting international crisis in the Balkans, where ethnic Serbians and Albanians have clashed in recent days in the conflict over Kosovo.

The message that the Serbian tennis star scrawled Monday night on a plexiglass plate overlaid on a television camera lens – “Kosovo is at the heart of Serbia” – has sports officials calling for him to be disciplined, muzzled or both, and Albanian loyalists calling him a fascist.

“A drama-free Grand Slam, I don’t think it will happen for me. I guess that drives me, as well,” Djokovic said, after he beat Marton Fucsovics of Hungary on Wednesday night.

The 22-time Grand Slam tournament champion struggled to find his timing early on, with the wind gusting as day turned to night. But as the light faded the wind did too, and Djokovic cruised, finishing off the steady Fucsovics, 7-6 (7-2), 6-0, 6-3, in 2 hours and 44 minutes. But as it is so often with Djokovic, what is happening on the tennis court this week is only a fraction of the story.

The World Health Organization recently declared an end to the Covid-19 health emergency and the United States ended its requirement for foreign travellers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, ending discussion of Djokovic’s decision not to receive the vaccination. He was forced to skip some of the most important tournaments in tennis over the past two years, and last year was detained and deported from Australia before the Open.

He didn’t even have to worry about his main nemesis, with Rafael Nadal missing this year’s French Open, a tournament he has won 14 times, because of an injury. Djokovic continues his usual march toward the second week of the tournament – although top-seeded Carlos Alcaraz may pose trouble.

After Djokovic’s first-round match Monday, like every winning player on the stadium courts at major tennis tournaments, he grabbed a marker for the traditional signing of the courtside television camera.

The practice, which began in the 2000s as a way for players to connect with fans, gives them an opportunity to send an international television audience a typically cheerful message like “Vamos!” (Spanish for “Let’s go!”), wish a loved one “happy birthday” or write their child’s name.

Occasionally the scrawl expresses a political opinion. In the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian player Andrey Rublev wrote “No War Please” on the lens plate.

Writing in his native language and drawing a heart, Djokovic’s message followed a weekend of violent clashes between Serbian protesters and Nato forces who have been trying to maintain a tense peace in the region for 15 years.

Roughly an hour later, during the Serbian portion of his post-match news conference, Djokovic, whose past political statements have been suffused with Serbian nationalism, doubled down.

“I am against wars, violence and any kind of conflict, as I’ve always stated publicly. I empathise with all people, but the situation with Kosovo is a precedent in international law,” Djokovic said, according to the widely circulated translations. He called Kosovo, “our hearthstone, our stronghold,” and said, “Our most important monasteries are there.”

Almost immediately, the statements sparked the expected reactions at the polarised ends of the conflict: hero worship from Serbians, and outrage from the ethnic Albanians who account for the overwhelming majority of the population in Kosovo but are vastly outnumbered in a handful of villages and small cities. The groups, Orthodox Christians on one side, Muslims on the other, have been fighting on and off for control in the region for hundreds of years, dating back to the Ottoman Empire.

Jeta Xharra, a human rights activist in Kosovo, said in an interview Tuesday 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.

The Kosovan Olympic Committee has called for the International Olympic Committee and the International Tennis Federation to take disciplinary action against Djokovic. For its part, French Open officials have opted to stay out of the conflict. There is nothing in the rule book that prohibits a player from making political statements.

France’s tennis federation, the FFT, said it was “understandable” that players would discuss international events.

However, the French sports minister, Amelie Oudea-Castera, called Djokovic’s statement “inappropriate” during a television interview, saying it was “very activist” and “very political” and that he “shouldn’t get involved again.”

Judging from Djokovic’s recent and not-so-recent behaviour, that is not an option, and he said as much during his statement after his first match.

“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 said in his native language.

For Djokovic, the statements have had increased impact because with the war in Ukraine garnering so much attention, few outside the Balkans were aware of just how heightened the tensions in Kosovo have become during the past week – as heightened as they have been since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Watching events unfold from Paris as he prepared for the French Open, Djokovic searched for a way to express two emotions – a desire for peace and the belief that Kosovo is part of Serbia. He has often spoken of the traumatic experience of growing up in a war zone, with bombs falling not far from his home during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. He has said that anyone who has lived through that experience could never be in favour of war and violence. He used those words in January, when controversy found him at the Australian Open after his father, who was born in Kosovo, was caught on video posing with a fan of his son’s who was holding a Russian flag.

In 2008, when Djokovic was a young player breaking into the sport’s elite ranks, he recorded a video expressing solidarity with protesters in Belgrade, Serbia, after Kosovo declared independence.

“Of course, I’m aware that a lot of people would disagree,” he said as midnight closed in Wednesday. “But it is what it is. It’s something that I stand for.”