Novak Djokovic has risked fuelling political tensions in his home region with a political message about Kosovo – after peacekeeping troops were hurt when ethnic Serbs clashed with police over the weekend.
Following his win against Aleksandr Kovacevic in the first round of the French Open, Djokovic who is Serbian, wrote on the camera lens: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.”
His comments came as the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeeping force claimed that 25 of its troops were injured in clashes with ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 – but the two countries have been foes for decades, as Belgrade refused to recognise its sovereignty.
Violence broke out in the north of the country over the weekend after ethnic Albanian mayors were installed in Serbian-dominated areas.
The clashes were the latest incident as tensions soared over the past week, with Serbia putting the country’s military on high alert and sending more troops to the border with Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the US and the European Union have ramped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as Russia’s war rages in Ukraine.
The EU has made it clear that Serbia and Kosovo must normalise their relations to advance in their intentions to join the bloc.
On Monday, Kosovar police and the NATO-led KFOR, were seen protecting the municipality buildings in Zvecan, Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Mitrovica – which are four communes in the northern region that held early elections last month.
Djokovic, whose father was born in Kosovo, told Serbian journalists: “I am not a politician, nor do I intend to enter into debates.
“As a Serb, it hurts me what is happening in Kosovo. Our people have been expelled from the municipalities. This is the least I could do. As a public figure, I feel an obligation to show support for our people and all of Serbia.”
He added: “I hear there was a lot of criticism on social media. I don’t know if someone will punish me or something like that, but I would do it again. I am against wars and conflicts of any kind.
“Kosovo is our heart, stronghold, the centre of the most important events, the biggest battle took place there, the most monasteries. There are many reasons why I wrote this.”
In November, Serbia’s football team were fined by FIFA at the World Cup after a flag showing Kosovo as part of the country was displayed in their changing room.
Djokovic, 36, made his comments after his 6-3 6-2 7-6 (7-1) win against Kovacevic.
He faces Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics in the second round in Paris on Wednesday.