PARIS — Novak Djokovic refrained from any political messages at the French Open following a second-round victory that was a struggle for a set Wednesday night — hours after a government minister criticized the 22-time Grand Slam champion’s comments about clashes in Kosovo as “not appropriate.”
French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera warned Djokovic on Wednesday morning not to wade into such international issues again during the Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros.
Speaking on TV station France 2, Oudea-Castera said French Open tournament director Amelie Mauresmo encouraged Djokovic and his entourage to maintain “neutrality” on the field of play.
When his 7-6 (7-2), 6-0, 6-3 win against Marton Fucsovics ended Wednesday, Djokovic wrote on the lens of a TV camera — a custom at more and more tennis tournaments — and kept it simple, with an autograph and a smiley face. It was quite different from what happened after his first-round victory Monday, when Djokovic drew attention for writing in Serbian: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence” — a reference to clashes in northern Kosovo between ethnic Serbs and NATO-led peacekeepers.
Djokovic found plenty of tennis-related reasons to be bothered during the epic opening set against Fucsovics, whose only trip to a major quarterfinal ended with a loss to the 36-year-old from Serbia.
One issue was how hard, and how well, Fucsovics was walloping the ball early on. Another was how windy it was in the event’s main stadium, rippling the players’ shirts and whipping flags atop the arena until they twisted around their poles. That swirling air kicked up clay from the court, which led to another problem for Djokovic: shaky footing.
He would slip and slide and have trouble getting his feet planted properly. Djokovic asked the chair umpire for more clay to be added to the playing surface. Another complaint he had for the official was that breaks between games were being cut too short.
That set lasted an unusually long 1½ hours but, as usual, it was Djokovic who was best when it mattered the most, dominating the tiebreaker.
During the changeover after that set, Djokovic changed shirts, and TV cameras zoomed in on an object about the size of a bottle cap that appeared to be taped to his chest. It was not immediately clear what the item was.
On Monday, Djokovic said he thought what he wrote on the TV camera was “the least I could do. I feel responsibility as a public figure ... as well as a son of a man who was born in Kosovo.”
A former province of Serbia, Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence is not recognized by Belgrade. Ethnic Albanians make up most of the population, but Kosovo has a restive Serb minority in the north of the country bordering Serbia.
“When it comes to defending human rights and bringing people together around universal values, a sportsperson is free to do so,” Oudea-Castera said. But she added that Djokovic’s message was “militant, very political” and “must not be repeated.”
Kosovo’s tennis federation deemed Djokovic’s comments “deplorable,” saying he was stoking tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
“We received a letter from Kosovo, which we have answered,” International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty said. “But essentially we have forwarded their letter to the French federation, to the French Open, it’s their tournament, and to the ATP who have the rules — the two of them together have the rules and regulations for the event.”
Haggerty added that “athletes have to be careful on their political views. Sports and politics is what we have been talking about and we really want to keep them separate.”
Ukrainian player Elina Svitolina was asked about the issue after her second-round victory Wednesday. She has spoken out about Russia’s invasion of her country, and said athletes should be able to express opinions.
“Well, we are living in the free world, so why not ... say your opinion on something? I feel like if you stand for something, you think that this is the way [and] you should say [so],” said Svitolina, who also acknowledged, “I don’t know the politics of Serbia.”