Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic has sparked a controversy at the French Open after writing a message on the recent flare-up between Serbia and Kosovo.
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” the world number three and winner of 22 Grand Slam titles wrote on a camera lens in Serbian, following his first-round victory against American Aleksandar Kovacevic in Paris on Monday.
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“Kosovo is our cradle, our stronghold, centre of the most important things for our country … There are many reasons why I wrote that on the camera,” the 36-year-old later said, according to Serbian media RFI radio.
Over the weekend, violent clashes between Kosovo’s police and NATO-led peacekeepers on one side, and local Serbs on the other left several people injured on both sides.
The tension started after Serbs boycotted last month’s local elections held in northern Kosovo, where Serbs are a majority, and newly-elected ethnic Albanian mayors moved into their offices with the help of Kosovo’s riot police.
Kosovo is a mainly ethnic Albanian-populated territory that was formerly a province of Serbia.
It declared independence in 2008 which has been recognised by about 100 countries, except for Serbia, Russia, China and five other European Union nations.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were injured as Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani accused Vucic of trying to destabilise the self-declared republic.
NATO’s spokesperson issued a statement condemning the attack and “called on all sides to refrain from actions that further inflame tensions, and to engage in dialogue”.
Speaking to Serbian media, Djokovic highlighted that he is not a politician, nor does he intend to enter into debates.
“Of course it hurts me very much as a Serb to see what is happening in Kosovo and the way our people have been practically expelled from the municipal offices, so the least I could do was this,” he said.
“As a public figure but also a son of a man who was born in Kosovo I feel additional responsibility to express my support to our people and Serbia as a whole,” he said and added that he sympathises with all people but what is happening in Kosovo “is a precedent in international law”.
This is not the first time Djokovic has stirred political tensions.
At the Australian Open in January, he defended his father posing with fans holding Russian flags.
The French Tennis Federation (FFT), which organises the event, told Reuters news agency that there were “no official Grand Slam rules on what players can or cannot say and said that they will not be commenting on this matter any further. The FFT will not be making any statement or taking any stance on this matter.”