It’s been a tough road back for competitive sport ever since the coronavirus pandemic brought things to a grinding halt in March. Bio-secure bubbles has been the buzzword as federations across the board put in a great amount of thought in detailing the health safety protocols needed to resume matches. Among the major sports, European football has been back in stages from last month, with strict measures in place, whereas cricket is set to make its return next month with the England-West Indies Test series.
But just as fans were starting to get used to the new normal, the Adria Tour (organised by world No 1 Novak Djokovic and his brother) came along. And the ill-fated exhibition tennis tournament has, without a doubt, raised serious questions about the bigger picture – the need for sport in such trying times.
The event, which took place in Serbia and Croatia before seeing its final leg in Bosnia being called off, had some of the top players in the world – including Djokovic (and his wife Jelena), Grigor Dimitrov, Viktor Troicki (and his eight months pregnant wife) and Borna Coric – along with two members of the coaching staff test positive for Covid-19.
The first and foremost concern for everyone involved is the complete recovery of those affected by the virus. The players, their families and staff need to put their attention in the immediate short-term on self-isolating and getting the virus out of their systems.
It was also interesting to see a line in Djokovic’s second statement of apology on Tuesday: “I am extremely sorry for each individual case of infection. I hope that it will not complicate anyone’s health situation.”
The question, then, is what are the organisers of the event going to do for the fans or staff associated with the event, in a scenario where they test positive. Given the number of fans (many of them kids) who attended the event, lives are at stake and as the ones who put up the show, Djokovic and Co must face the consequences.
Resumption of tennis
About the event itself, the rationale Djokovic offered for hosting was bizarre.
“We organised the tournament at the moment when the virus has weakened, believing that the conditions for hosting the Tour had been met,” he said. “Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with.”
This, from the top-ranked player in the world and someone who has been a public figure for a decade and a half, shows just how out of sync he was with reality when he decided to green-light the event, the tournament director of which was his brother.
The activities surrounding the Adria Tour were outrageous. Everything that happened was just that difficult to fathom despite stemming from “pure and sincere intentions”.
Players and organisers didn’t wear masks for the most part, they indulged in friendly basketball and football games apart from the tennis, gave each other hugs and high-fives at every opportunity, allowed crowds in excess of 20,000 to fill the stands (most of whom weren’t wearing masks either), organised a kids day, and partied shirtless in a cramped club. All in the middle of a raging pandemic.
While there’s no reason to believe that the ATP/WTA Tours and the Grand Slams will allow any of these excesses if and when official tournaments resume, what the Adria Tour has done is provide a jolt… a strong reminder of the threat that is very much still out there.
Tennis is hoping to get back on its feet with the French Open and US Open being held in quick succession in August-September. Organisers of both the tournaments as well as the heads of the ATP and WTA have insisted that the health and safety of everyone involved is the priority. Djokovic may have suggested that these rules are extreme, but the authorities have (fortunately) been adamant that they’re necessary.
In an interview with The New York Times, Andrea Gaudenzi, chairman of the ATP, said that there is one important positive that will emerge from the Adria Tour debacle – it will help players understand the gravity of the situation.
“It’s a little bit like when you tell your kids when they try to learn to ride the bike to wear the helmet,” said Gaudenzi. “It’s ‘no, no, no’. And they ride the bike, they fall, and then they wear the helmet. Now we all know we can get this [the virus] very easily, so we’re going to be even more careful, and maybe we will have a little bit more tolerance toward the bubble [the health safety protocols].”
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Failings as a leader
While the organisers of the Adria Tour grapple with this unfortunate turn of events, another big question that has presented itself is: What impact will the event have on Djokovic’s legacy?
Firstly, the Serb’s actions as the head of the ATP Player Council have been unacceptable. Djokovic reportedly missed a Player Council video conference because he was busy playing a friendly game of football with his mates. As the president of the Player Council and an icon of the sport, he let down those who look up to him.
Secondly, Djokovic has given little to no importance to his role as a leader in the sport. In the name of “uniting the region”, he invited top players and put their health at risk, along with that of everyone else involved. His insistence that everything was being done within the guidelines provided by the government betrayed a severe lack of ownership. It was his responsibility to know better, there are no two ways about it.
Add to that, he was nowhere to be found once news of Dimitrov’s positive test emerged and the rest of the players scampered to get themselves checked in the dead of the night. He didn’t show up at that time because he didn’t feel any symptoms, despite it being common knowledge that carriers of the virus could very well be asymptomatic. Then, he flew home to Serbia with the virus in his system, exposing countless others to the risk.
It must also be said that the first statement he put out on Tuesday was hardly an apology, and it was only much later in the day, possibly after getting a grip of the escalating situation, did he offer a genuine note of regret.
These instances, combined with his sermons on social media, raise the question – Is Djokovic using his stature as a role model in the right way?
Djokovic’s place in the upper echelons of tennis is undeniable. The example he has set on the court with his jaw-dropping skills and devotion to the game will surely stand the test of time. He is currently third on the list of men’s singles players with most Grand Slam titles, and has a better head-to-head record against the two players who are widely regarded as the greatest – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
However, despite everything he has achieved, one cannot help but wonder whether his actions off the court will have a lasting impact. In a matter of months, his public image seems to have spiralled to a low. Perhaps, even diehard fans might struggle to defend their hero.
The 33-year-old has often spoken of his desire to own the most number of Grand Slam titles and weeks at the No 1 ranking. His ambition is indisputable. And he could very well get there. He’s the youngest member of the ‘Big Three’ and is still close to his peak, having won the Australian Open earlier this year.
However, while he may stack up all the numbers, Djokovic’s actions in the recent past may rob him of his desire to be known as the greatest. For, as unfair as it may be, it is impossible to separate the athlete from the person. Pick up any sport, the ones rated at the very top are those that also command respect for who they are as people. That’s just the way it works. Take tennis itself, Margaret Court may hold the distinction of having the most Majors among both men and women, but her place in history will forever be debatable because of her actions off the court.
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For Djokovic, the silver lining in all of this is that he could use this low phase to fire himself up to perform even better when he takes the court. And looking back at his performances after the times he was down and out in his career, there’s no reason to believe he won’t deliver extraordinary tennis again.
In an interview with Graham Bensinger last month, Djokovic’s wife Jelena reflected on when he is at his most dangerous.
“He’s not such a good loser, but [in a way] he is, because he recovers,” she said. “He’s like this phoenix that rises and finds the motivation. He needs to drop completely down, lose everything so that he can start building another tower. And it’s [usually] an amazing tower.”
Djokovic conquering the courts again won’t come as a surprise. The real challenge will be rebuilding his image.