Serbia, Kosovo political battle and Russia’s war in Ukraine take centre court at the French Open

Serbia, Kosovo political battle and Russia’s war in Ukraine take centre court at the French Open
Novak Djokovic of Serbia prepares to serve to Aleksandar Kovacevic of the USA in their Men's Singles first-round match during the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 29 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / YOAN VALAT)

Trouble in Kosovo and the war in Europe have focused attention more on the opinions of Djokovic and Sabalenka than on the fine tennis being played.

Politics and sport are as old as, well, politics and sport. In 490 BCE, the soldier-turned-messenger Pheidippides ran from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens to deliver vital intelligence. It wasn’t a sporting event, of course, but it was a sporting endeavour linked to politics.

The distance Pheidippides ran was about 25 miles (4okm). In 1896, at the first modern Olympic Games staged in Athens, the marathon was run to commemorate the Greek soldier’s feat. A vital military and political exploit by a determined soldier in antiquity was adopted for what is now a central piece of sporting lore – the marathon.

Nearly 2,500 years later, athletes are still being embroiled in politics, either on purpose or against their will. As the popularity of competitive sport has grown and, with it, the business of sport, so too has the profile of athletes. That comes with demands outside the field of play.

Most athletes today are expected to be eloquent on a range of issues. Some are happy to express opinions, but others cringe or bristle when asked about global affairs. 

Political and social issues

The 2023 French Open has been fertile ground for the intersection of sport and politics, which has overshadowed some of the fine tennis being played.

And few sports attract political attention as much as tennis. Whether it was the #blacklivesmatter movement, which Serena Williams spoke passionately about, or mental health issues, which Naomi Osaka confronted head-on at Roland Garros in 2021, tennis is somehow always straddling the line between sport and politics.

Novak Djokovic, the 22-time Grand Slam winner, refused Covid-19 vaccinations and widely divided opinion, and now he has waded into politics again. This time the subject is the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, a state not recognised by the former and where there have been recent clashes between Serb protesters and Nato forces.

After his first-round win at Roland Garros, Djokovic wrote “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, stop the violence” in Serbian on a camera lens. It inevitably led to criticism or praise, depending on where the response came from.

A tense situation has developed after ­ethnic Albanian mayors took office in northern Kosovo’s Serb-majority area after elections that the Serbs boycotted – a move that led the US and its allies to rebuke the authorities in Kosovo.

Serbs have never accepted the region’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia more than two decades after the Kosovo Albanian uprising against repressive Serbian rule.

“As a son of a man born in Kosovo, I feel the need to give my support to our people and to the entirety of Serbia,” Djokovic told a news briefing after his first-round match at Roland Garros.

“My stance is clear: 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.”

He was asked again about the message after his straight-sets win over Marton Fucsovics in round tw0.

“It’s something that I stand for. So that’s all … I have no more comment on that. I said what I needed to say,” Djokovic said. 

Aryna Sabalenka of Russia plays Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine in their Women’s Singles first-round match during the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 28 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON)

The war in Europe

Russia’s illegal 2022 invasion of Uk­­raine is another topic at news conferences when Russian or Ukrainian athletes are involved. And tennis, given the prevalence of players from eastern Europe – particularly Russia and Belarus – is a fertile space for barbs to be traded.

This week, Aryna Sabalenka, the world No 2 and one of the favourites in the women’s draw at Roland Garros, was on the defensive about the Ukraine war.

Her first-round opponent, Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, ignored the traditional handshake at the net, snubbing the 25-year-old Belarussian.

In her post-match media conference, Kostyuk called on Sabalenka to speak out against the war.

“She [Sabalenka] never says that she personally doesn’t support this war, and I feel like journalists should change the questions you ask these athletes because the war is already there,” Kostyuk said.

When journalists did probe Sabalenka further her response was curt.

“I have no comments to you, so thank you for your question,” she told a news conference after a reporter asked about her relationship with Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko and whether a potential world No 1 should be associated with him. Sabalenka has met Lukashenko in the past.

Lukashenko, who is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s staunchest ally among its neighbours, celebrated Sabalenka’s Australian Open victory in January and said recently that people knew which country she hailed from even if she was playing under a neutral flag.

“I’ve got no comments to you,” Sabalenka told the reporter. “You’ve got enough answers from me, and I’ve got no comments to you.”

In March 2022, tennis’s governing bodies barred players from Russia and Belarus from competing under the name or flag of either country because of the war, requiring them to play under neutral flags.

As long as the war in Ukraine continues, and perhaps for years after, tennis players can expect to come under scrutiny. 

On the court

In between the politics, some sport did break out and there were compelling matches in week one.

Perhaps the best was the five-set thriller between rising star Jannik Sinner from Italy and Germany’s Daniel Altmaier, which lasted five hours and 26 minutes.

The last game alone, in which Altmaier was serving for the match, was 14 minutes long, with Sinner saving four match points before the German eventually got over the line with a 6-7(0) 7-6(7) 1-6 7-6(4) 7-5 win.

In the women’s draw, American sixth seed Coco Gauff, runner-up last year, cruised to a 6-2 6-3 win over Austrian Julia Grabher in the second round as she continued her bid to reach a second straight final in Paris.

Seventh seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia earned a quick 6-2 6-3 victory over France’s Oceane Dodin to march into the third round, finishing the match after one hour 11 minutes. DM

Additional reporting by Reuters.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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