Has tennis star Novak Djokovic hampered Europe’s EV battery supply?

Protests in the Serbian capital of Belgrade

Protests in the Serbian capital of Belgrade
Photo: Olivier Bunic/AFP (Getty Images)

Professional tennis has a strong commercial association with the automotive industry. Many famous actors sign lucrative multi-year deals to promote and appear in advertisements for luxury car brands. Specifically, Roger Federer has a long-standing relationship with Mercedes-Benz. The 20-time Grand Slam winner from Switzerland has been a partner of the German automaker since 2008.

As luxury brands shift to selling more and more electric models, it would seem risky professionally to do something to prevent the production of electric cars. Well, one of Federer’s longtime rivals and Peugeot ambassador, Novak Djokovic, has inserted himself into a dispute over what would have been one of Europe’s largest lithium mines. I say “what would have been” because the Serbian government revoked the exploration licenses needed to locate lithium deposits for the mine.

Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, hoped to open the Jadar lithium mine in western Serbia. The company planned to extract 64,000 tonnes (58,000 metric tons) of lithium carbonate per year from the site. Rio Tinto also invested InoBat, a Slovak manufacturer of electric batteries, to capitalize on the increase in production of electric vehicles on the continent. Several other companies had also announced projects in Serbia to take advantage of the proposed mine.

However, the project sparked widespread protests for various reasons. Environmental groups are harmed by the widespread destruction that a new mine would cause to the region’s environment. Others are unhappy that the populist government of Serbia is allowing a foreign company to exploit Serbia’s resources. In December last year, Novak Djokovic posted on social media in support of the protests.

While Djokovic’s breach of Australia’s COVID entry rules and eventual deportation have grabbed international headlines, there’s a lot more going on below the surface. The Serbian government’s threats to the actions of the Australian government seemed to be a desperate and unsuccessful ploy to gain public support ahead of an upcoming election.

While the Serbian government couldn’t pressure Australia to allow Djokovic to stay in the country and compete in the Australian Open, the revocation of the license is a minimal consolation victory. Serbs continue to protest and demand that a moratorium on lithium mining be put in place so that the decision cannot simply be reversed after the election.

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