Novak Djokovic’s canceled Adria Tour a cautionary tale during coronavirus pandemic

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic has earned many accolades in an illustrious career that has produced 17 Grand Slam singles titles. He has been praised as a champion, a Serbian national treasure, an ambassador for the game, a philanthropist and a spiritual seeker.

Djokovic now will also be known as a cautionary tale following the collapse of his Adria Tour after a number of players, including himself, tested positive for COVID-19. The four-city tour, conceived and promoted by Djokovic, crashed prematurely Sunday, before the final of the second leg in Zadar, Croatia, after drawing criticism for the apparent lack of coronavirus protocols, including those recommended by most medical experts during the worldwide pandemic.

Djokovic made his test results public on Tuesday in a statement on his website and social media.

“The moment we arrived in Belgrade we went to be tested,” Djokovic wrote. “My result is positive, just as Jelena’s [Djokovic’s wife], 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.”

The other players who tested positive after two weeks on the Adria Tour include ATP No. 19 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 33 Borna Coric and 34-year-old Viktor Troicki. In addition, Dimitrov’s coach, Christian Groh, and Djokovic’s fitness coach, Marko Paniki, tested positive.

The reaction to the flurry of positive tests was swift.

Nick Kyrgios, the Australian star who has been a skeptic of various plans to restart tennis, wrote on Twitter: “Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition’ speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”

Other tennis constituents were equally critical. One former coach of Grand Slam champions who asked not to be identified told ESPN, “The big question in my mind is: Was this ignorance or arrogance on the part of Djokovic?”

It’s a valid question, and perhaps it was a little bit of both. Djokovic’s responsibility is tempered by the fact that Serbian and Croatian officials, buoyed by the lack of a major coronavirus outbreak in their nations, recently lifted all social distancing restrictions. That opened the door for Djokovic to put together his tour with little or no safeguards.

Djokovic, who is also president of the ATP player council, has recently been the subject of considerable criticism owing to his attitudes and actions regarding COVID-19. Noah Rubin, a journeyman who has become an advocate for lower-ranked players, called out Djokovic for playing soccer with fellow Adria Tour participants while the ATP was conducting an informational teleconference with the entire body of players, including plans to restart play under the safest conditions possible.

Djokovic was accused by some players, including Danielle Collins and Daniel Evans, of selfishness unbecoming a leader when he suggested that he might not play at the US Open, should the protocols limit how many members of his entourage he would be allowed to bring.

Djokovic said earlier this year that he was opposed to vaccinations and didn’t want to be vaccinated for COVID-19, even if it was mandatory for international travel. Always an unconventional thinker, Djokovic once suggested in an Instagram Live chat that the psychological power of positive thinking and emotions could turn polluted water clean.

Djokovic’s beliefs in “positivity” could help explain how he could design and launch the Adria Tour heedless of the pandemic.

“We organized the tournament at the moment when the virus has weakened, believing that the conditions for hosting the Tour had been met,” Djokovic said in his statement. “Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with.”

Djokovic mistakenly believed that he could present tennis in the familiar, relaxed way it had always been staged in pre-coronavirus times.

“It was like he wanted to take tennis back to 2019,” Paul Annacone, Tennis Channel analyst and former coach of Roger Federer, told ESPN. “This tournament went from A to Z, skipping all the letters in between. When it started, I found myself simultaneously being excited and holding my breath.”

“It obviously wasn’t a foolproof plan,” said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who tested positive for COVID-19 and experienced modest symptoms some weeks ago. “It was a foolhardy plan.”

Before the start of the ill-fated second leg in Zadar, Djokovic told Croatian magazine Jutarnji List that the tournament would “send a wonderful, strong and positive message to the whole world.”

He might not have realized at the time that the public was already taking away a very different message after watching the opening event the previous week in his hometown of Belgrade.

The images of thousands of fans sitting elbow-to-elbow, none wearing face masks, with ball persons and linespeople deployed in the customary, pre-coronavirus fashion, sounded alarm bells. So did the way the players hugged, exchanged high-fives and played pickup games of basketball and soccer in their spare time. The last straw, for many, was the video of players celebrating and dancing in a crowded Belgrade nightclub at the conclusion of the first leg.

“That kind of topped it off,” McEnroe said. “There they were, partying without shirts and screaming, which is maybe the worst thing you can possibly do in terms of transmitting the virus.”

“Oh, it’s beyond hubris,” Rubin said. “He and the other players were too in their own bubble to see maybe the consequences of their actions.”

Rubin also asked why tennis was put on “a pedestal” by the governments of Serbian and Croatia while in France, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS), organized by Serena Williams‘ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was being played without fans amid numerous safety protocols.

According to Mouratoglou’s team, No. 3-ranked Dominic Thiem, who joined UTS after playing in the Belgrade Adria Tour event, has tested negative for the coronavirus three times since switching to UTS.

“I think about what’s happening in Europe,” Annacone, who lives in California, said. “Did they even test any of these guys on Novak’s tour? How are they supposed to trace what happened with Grigor, Borna, those trainers, all those fans? The process now is so skewed. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.”

The events in Serbia and Croatia were closely watched by tennis officials hoping to stage a US Open without spectators and under a broad plan with many safety features approved by the state of New York. Some are concerned that the fate of the Adria Tour will impact whether the US Open proceeds. The major will be held from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13.

Dr. Alexis Colvin, the USTA’s chief medical officer, told ESPN in a statement, “Our medical team continues to monitor the pandemic and will make adjustments to our protocols as appropriate. This incident has not affected our current protocols.”

Djokovic installed his inexperienced 24-year-old younger brother, Djordje Djokovic, as the Adria Tour tournament director. The younger Djokovic seemed to dodge responsibility for the collapse of the tour.

“We are very sorry,” he said, according to Serbian newspaper Blic. “We tried to respect, and we did, all the measures issued by the Government of the Republic of Serbia, as well as the Government of the Republic of Croatia. We have done everything necessary on our part. Unfortunately, Grigor is positive.”

Dimitrov said in an Instagram post Monday that he felt sorry for any harm he might have caused.

“I tested positive back in Monaco for COVID-19,” the Bulgarian star wrote after returning home. “I want to make sure anyone who has been in contact with me during these past days gets tested and takes the necessary precautions. … I am back home now and recovering.”

Coric also took to Twitter on Monday to offer an apology and urge anyone who had contact with him to be tested.

Andrey Rublev, a finalist in the canceled match in Zadar, wrote on Twitter that although he tested negative, “we need to all help reduce the spreading of this virus. So I am going to self-quarantine for the next 14 days. Thank you for your support.”

No. 7-ranked Alexander Zverev, the major drawing card after Djokovic on the Adria Tour, wrote, “I have just received news that my team and I have tested negative for COVID-19. I deeply apologize to anyone that I have potentially put at risk by playing this tour. I will proceed to follow the self-isolating guidelines advised by our doctors.”

Although Marin Cilic did not apologize, he announced on Twitter that he would self-quarantine for two weeks.

So far, Djokovic is the last Adria Tour player to reveal that he tested positive.

“I am extremely sorry for each individual case of infection,” Djokovic wrote. “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.”