Did Tennis Star Novak Djokovic Hinder Europe’s EV Battery Supply?

Protests in the Serbian capital of Belgrade

Protests in the Serbian capital of Belgrade
photo: Oliver Bunic/AFP (Getty Images)

Professional tennis has a strong commercial association with the automobile industry. Many famous players sign lucrative multi-year deals to promote and appear in advertisements for luxury car brands. Most notably, Roger Federer has a long-running relationship with Mercedes-Benz. The Swiss 20-time Grand Slam tournament winner has been partnered with the German automaker since 2008.

As luxury brands globally transition to selling more and more electric models, it would seem risky professionally to do something to impede electric car production. Well, one of Federer’s long-time rivals and Peugeot ambassador Novak Djokovic inserted himself into a conflict over what would have been one of the largest lithium mines in Europe. I say “what would have been” as Serbia’s government revoked the exploration licenses necessary to spot the lithium deposits for the mine.

Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining giant, hoped to open the Jadar lithium mine in western Serbia. The company expected to extract 64,000 tons (58,000 metric tons) of lithium carbonate per year from the site. Rio Tinto also invested InoBat, a Slovakian electric battery manufacturer, to capitalize on increasing electric vehicle production across the continent. Several other companies had also announced projects in Serbia to take advantage of the proposed mine.

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

While Djokovic’s violation of Australia’s COVID-entry rules and eventual deportation stole international headlines, there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface. The Serbian government’s threats towards the Australian government’s actions seemed to be a desperate and unsuccessful ploy at garnish public support before an upcoming election.

While Serbia’s government couldn’t pressure Australia into allowing Djokovic to remain in the country and compete in the Australian Open, the license revocation is a minimal consolation victory. Serbians continue to protest and demand that a moratorium on lithium mining be put into place so the decision can’t simply be reversed after the election.

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