Novak Djokovic has found himself in the eye of a storm after his ill-fated charity tennis tournament, The Adria Tour 2020, has resulted in several players testing positive for Covid-19.
The tournament, created by Djokovic, was to be played in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina between June 12 and July 5 but had to be shut down before it could be completed.
The first weekend of the tournament, played in Serbia, went off without a hitch, but the second, in Croatia, had to be shut down once four players tested positive for Covid-19. Surprisingly, when the rest of the world was reeling under the effects of the pandemic, this tournament was played in front of capacity crowds, to packed stands and the players too did not practice social distancing. There were fist bumps between players, posing for photographs together, even parties organised at nightclubs and elsewhere.
Grigor Dimitrov was the first to test positive, followed by Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki, and eventually Djokovic announced that he too had tested positive.
Djokovic, who is not just the No. 1 player in the world, but is also President of the ATP Player Council, put out a detailed statement explaining his position.
“The moment we arrived in Belgrade we went to be tested. My result is positive, just as Jelena’s, while the results of our children are negative. Everything we did in the past month, we did with a pure heart and sincere intentions. Our tournament meant to unite and share a message of solidarity and compassion throughout the region.”
Djokovic explained why he went ahead with the event despite the current climate. “The Tour has been designed to help both established and up-and-coming tennis players from South-Eastern Europe to gain access to some competitive tennis while the various tours are on hold due to the COVID-19 situation.”
Djokovic added that the aim of the tournament was to help those affected by the lack of competitive tennis. “It was all born with a philanthropic idea, to direct all raised funds towards people in need and it warmed my heart to see how everybody strongly responded to this. We organized the tournament at the moment when the virus has weakened, believing that the conditions for hosting the Tour had been met. Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with.”
Finally, Djokovic apologised to those who were infected at the event. “I am hoping things will ease with time so we can all resume lives the way they were. I am extremely sorry for each individual case of infection. I hope that it will not complicate anyone’s health situation and that everyone will be fine. I will remain in self-isolation for the next 14 days, and repeat the test in five days.”
Djokovic under fire
As soon as it became clear that the Adria Tour’s attempt to alleviate some of the stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had backfired, the tennis world weighed in, with some coming down especially hard.
Nick Kyrgios, the Australian, was as blunt as ever. “Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition’” said Kyrgios. “Speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”
Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray was more measured, but his message was much the same “In hindsight with what’s happened there it is not a good look. When you are going through a time like this it’s important any of the top athletes around the world should be showing that we are taking this extremely seriously and knowing that we are using social distancing measures and whatever it is.”
Murray hoped that something good would come of this yet. “I hope that we learn from it and off the back of it they will be taking it extremely seriously because ultimately the tour won’t get back again if we are having problems every single week and the players are doing what they want. We need to make sure we are doing the right thing.”
Martina Navratilova, the former champion, wondered what effect these events would have on events scheduled in the short-term future. “Yikes this is not good and it’s a pattern. Hope Novak will be ok of course! What now, US Open? Roland Garros? We have a lot of work to do.”
US Open in focus
When it was announced that the U.S. Open tennis tournament would take place as scheduled, between August 31 and September 13, in Flushing Meadows, New York, it was met with scepticism and disbelief. New York has been one of the epicentres of the pandemic and there was concern over how the tournament could be safely conducted.
Andrew Cuomo the Governor of New York, said that the tournament would not be open to fans and would be played before empty stands at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.
When the announcement came, the United States Tennis Association was happy to get the go-ahead. “We recognize the tremendous responsibility of hosting one of the first global sporting events in these challenging times, and we will do so in the safest manner possible, mitigating all potential risks. We now can give fans around the world the chance to watch tennis’ top athletes compete for a US Open title, and we can showcase tennis as the ideal social distancing sport,” Mike Dowse, USTA CEO, said.
For his part, Cuomo listed the measures that would be taken to hold the event. “The USTA will take extraordinary precautions to protect players and staff, including robust testing, additional cleaning, extra locker room space and dedicated housing and transportation,” Cuomo said in his daily news conference.
The tournament is a major revenue driver for the city of New York and the USTA. It is estimated to bring in US$ 400 million in revenue annually, which makes up a majority of the USTA’s annual inflow of funds. In excess of 500,000 fans attend the event each year, and besides the actual tennis, the event generates business to the area’s hotels, restaurants and the local economy.
Adria Impact on US Open?
When it was announced that the US Open would go on as scheduled, Djokovic was one of the first players to voice his doubts, saying that the “extreme measures” in place to conduct the tournament would make it difficult for top professionals to participate in a meaningful and enjoyable manner. He subsequently changed his mind, perhaps influenced by the setting up of his own event.
In an interview to the Tennis Channel, Djokovic said: “I would love to go. It’s likely that there’s going to be a better scenario, and all those [safety] measures will loosen up a bit. So I’m going to wait a bit and see how it all turns out. Right now, I cannot tell you yes or no.”
Djokovic admitted that he was not completely sure about how things would unfold. “I was personally amongst a lot of players quite skeptical about the US Open and the U.S. hard-court tournaments a couple of weeks ago, considering the fact that the USA was going through hard times due to the coronavirus,” Djokovic said, even as he called the decision to allow the tournament to take place “great news.”
Exactly what his position was, after testing positive, and being the host of a tournament that caused other players to get infected, was unclear. Djokovic has courted controversy in the past, stating that he would not take a vaccine for the Coronavirus, even if one were present. He also broke existing protocols, practising at a club in Spain when lockdown was in effect.