Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour exhibition tournament had multiple red flags along the way. Top tennis stars from around the world flew to the Balkans to play in the charity event. Except here, unlike the sport’s few other tournaments held amid the pandemic, spectators thronged the courts, players interacted with fans off it, hugged each other after matches, attended joint media conferences, played basketball, and even partied together.
The consequences threaten wider damages – professional tennis’ hopes of a comeback in August as much as the reputation of world No.1 Djokovic, president of the ATP Player Council.
Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov first and then Croatia’s Borna Coric, two of the high-profile players in the tournament, announced they have tested positive for Covid-19. Djokovic’s fitness coach, Marco Panichi, has also tested positive, Croatian media has reported quoting the country’s health institute.
Dimitrov, the 29-year-old world No. 19, broke the news on Instagram on Sunday, hours before the final between Djokovic and Russia’s Andrey Rublev was to have been played in Croatia’s Zadar city. Dimitrov had pulled out on Saturday after losing to local boy Coric saying he was feeling unwell. The final was immediately called off and former Croatia star Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, was booed by the crowd as he made the announcement.
On Monday, Coric, 23, tweeted he too has tested positive though he isn’t showing symptoms of the virus. While he and Dimitrov have urged people who came in contact with them during the event to get tested, tournament organisers have been left red-faced. “It is recommended that anyone who has been in close contact for more than 10 minutes with the tennis player be advised to self-isolate for 14 days and to contact their doctor,” the organisers said in a statement.
Apart from Djokovic and the two players who have tested positive, others in the tournament included Austrian world No.3 Dominic Thiem, German world No. 7 Alexander Zverev and 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic. It is learnt most of these players were tested in Zadar on Sunday, while Djokovic flew home to Belgrade before getting tested. Thiem also took part in the Ultimate Tennis Showdown in France over the weekend.
Social distancing, anyone?
The Adria Tour was Djokovic’s brainchild, to fill the void in tennis as the professional tour has been suspended since March. It was planned over four legs – in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia – between June 13 and July 5. It ran into trouble at the onset when the Montenegro leg was cancelled due to safety concerns.
Those concerns weren’t unfounded. The first leg held in Belgrade last weekend saw matches played in front of thousands of spectators, and similar scenes were witnessed in Croatia. With both countries having eased lockdown measures, regulations and basic social distancing steps were flouted by the fans and public as well as the players.
Players at photo-ops stood arms around each other; handshakes and hugs after matches was common; almost all participants interacted with fans – including kids – in public events held off the court. The likes of Dimitrov, Djokovic, Zverev and Cilic also played games of basketball together. Djokovic played the gracious host, taking players around Belgrade for dinner. They even partied after the Belgrade leg with videos showing Djokovic and Zverev dancing in a club with hundreds of others around.
When asked about the lack of precautions, Djokovic had said he and the event organisers – his brother Djordje was the tournament director – were acting within the protocols laid down by the Serbian government. “Of course, you can criticise, you can also say this is dangerous or not, but it’s not up to me to make the calls what is health-wise right or wrong,” he told reporters.
Kyrgios slams event
Djokovic is facing heavy criticism from the tennis fraternity and beyond. Australian Nick Kyrgios, who has opposed the idea of resuming the professional tennis tour anytime soon in the current scenario, termed the decision to hold the exhibition tournament “boneheaded”. “…speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE,” he tweeted on Monday.
French player Alize Cornet said she feared the worst. “While watching images from the Adria Tour, I kind of felt that something was really wrong… Am I the only one? Is it a consequence of it?” she tweeted.
Former American stars Chris Evert and Andy Roddick questioned the lack of safety measures. “…no safe distancing, total physical contact, no face masks, even the fans were without mask… I don’t get it… not smart,” Evert, winner of 18 grand slam singles titles, tweeted.
Ironically, Djokovic was one of the first among the top players to express reservations about the US Open deciding to go ahead as per schedule (Aug 31-Sept 13). He had this month described the safety guidelines put in place by Open organisers as “extreme” and “impossible” and calmed down only after the official announcement on holding the tournament was made in New York last week.
In April, as the pandemic was spreading, Djokovic caused a stir opposing plans for players to get coronavirus vaccination to play in tournaments, announcing he won’t be “forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel”.
The health fallout from the tournament can dent Djokovic’s standing as a leader of the players’ council while the positive cases will set the alarm bells ringing as the professional tours prepare to resume – the women’s tour is due to start on August 3 and the men’s tour on August 14 – despite elaborate precautions being planned.
(-With inputs from agencies)
Thank you for subscribing to our daily newsletter.