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Novak Djokovic’s Covid 19 Tennis Tour • Results Are Coming in

Djokovic with tournament volunteers. Social distancing was not enforced at the Adria Tour.

By Alix Ramsay

Seven and counting – that is the current number of people known to be infected with Covid-19 following Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour.

Djokovic and his wife were the latest to test positive after the second stage of the Serb’s exhibition series, their results coming through at lunchtime on Tuesday.

Their names were added those of Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric, Viktor Troicki, Kristijan Groh (Dimitrov’s coach) and Marko Paniki (Djokovic’s fitness trainer).  And that is just the number we know about from the playing and coaching staff. Who knows how many more people were hatching the bug and spreading it to others in the packed stands.

Djokovic and his wife Jelena were the latest to test positive for Covid-19.

The official website of the Adria Tour proudly boasted that Djokovic had brought together the world’s “top tennis aces” to play “three countries, four cities, four weeks of first class tennis” starting on June 13. What the website omitted to mention was that in between the four weekends of action, the “top tennis aces” would be playing football and basketball together and, once the work was done, they would all be out clubbing together. That, of course, was when they were not mixing with the ballkids for photo opportunities, hugging, embracing and high fiving each other whenever a “top tennis ace” hit a winner (or scored a goal) and generally breaking every hygiene protocol in the book.

While the rest of us have been hiding at home and venturing out only when necessary, dodging behind displays of fruit and veg in the grocery store whenever we see a fellow shopper and slathering ourselves with hand sanitiser, Djoko and his aces have been carrying on as if nothing has happened. Pandemic? What pandemic?

Djokovic out on the town with Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev during the Adria Tour.

When Dimitrov tested positive at the weekend during the Zadar leg of the tour (Croatia was second country the germ-infested aces had visited having started in Belgrade, Serbia, the week before), the Croatia final was cancelled. The third stage of the tour had already been canned by the Montenegrin government due to Covid fears while the fate of the fourth and final leg in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is yet to be decided (although is must surely be cancelled now).

Dominic Thiem, who had won the first leg in Belgrade, had already left and taken his place in the Ultimate Tennis Challenge in France at the Mouratoglou Academy. He was tested and found to be virus-free so he got back on court in Nice and kept on playing (he beat Tsitsipas on Sunday night).

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates with trophy after the final match against Filip Krajinovic.

Yet in the UK, the government guidelines state that anyone who has been in close contact with a person infected with Covid-19 must isolate for 14 days even if they return a negative test for the virus.

The UK government rules state: “If your test is negative, you must still complete your 14-day self-isolation period because the virus may not be detectable yet – this is crucial to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.”

Both Troicki and Dimitrov were in Belgrade with Thiem – the Austrian beat Dimitrov on his way to the final – and they were all pictured in a nightclub late on Sunday night having a grand old time. No sign of social distancing there.

The response to this Covid chaos has been swift and pointed. Nick Kyrgios, never one to mince his words, called the decision to hold the tour “boneheaded”. Dan Evans, who had earlier criticised Djokovic’s complaints about the restrictions being imposed on players planning to attend the US Open, said that “it is a poor example to set”. Andy Murray, too, who will be competing behind closed doors and under stringent hygiene protocols with Evans in the Battle of the Brits this week, said that it “was not a good look”.

Nick Kyrgios of Australia has been critical of the Adria Tour on social media.

Murray has known Djokovic since they were 13-year-old juniors together and he had no wish to start blaming his old sparring partner for anything. That said, the former world No.1 has always taken his position in the sport seriously: he knows that as a world class athlete, people look up to him and his colleagues in the locker room.

“I have always had a good relationship with Novak,” Murray said. “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

“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.”

In Djokovic’s defence, he said at the start of the Adria Tour that the Covid situation was different in Serbia and that they had set up the events in accordance with local guidelines.

“From the day one of the organisation of the Adria Tour, [we have been] following the rules and the measures that have been regulated by obviously the government institution and the public health institution,” he said in response to criticism of the way the crowds were packing the stands.

That may well be true but just because something is allowed does not mean that you have to do it. It is not actually illegal to douse yourself with petrol and start playing with matches – it is just not hugely advisable. You can only hope that Djokovic has learned that lesson now that he has contracted the potentially deadly virus.

Djokovic responded to criticism of the way the crowds were packing the stands.

Meanwhile, the USTA and the FFT must be watching these events unfold with a rising sense of panic.

Last week, the USTA announced their grand plans to hold the US Open behind closed doors and within their own bio-bubble to keep everyone safe. Yet if the first attempt to hold a tiny exhibition event in the Balkans results in a raft of positive tests and players falling ill, how can they claim it will be possible to have a water-tight (or virus-tight) set-up for 256 singles players, plus up to three team members per player, and 128 doubles players? Particularly as the “aces” of the Adria Tour proved just how little the players can be trusted to stay safe and locked down.

How will the US Open keep almost 400 players safe?

As for the FFT – they had been hoping to hold the French Open at the end of September with fans on site. The number of spectators is to be set by the public health authorities but after Djokovic’s disastrous tour, surely those authorities must be thinking twice about letting anyone near Roland Garros.

Djokovic refused to be tested in Zadar because he felt fine and was only tested once he returned to Belgrade on Monday. That decision could have spread the infection to countless others as he made his way home to Serbia.

Then again, Djokovic is not an admirer of modern medicine and as the Covid crisis started, he made it clear that he did not believe in vaccines. Later, during lockdown – which he broke to start practicing before he was allowed to – he gave us his thoughts on the powers of positive thought and how it could turn fetid water into a healing draught. Now he has organised the Covid Tour of the Balkans and come home with the virus. It has not been a good few months for the Serb.

And yet Djokovic is the world No.1. He is the president of ATP’s player council; he is the leader of the top players. As one of those players, Evans, the world No.28, sounds distinctly unimpressed.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Grigor has it, Coric has it,” Evans said. “But if you strip it back, is it a surprise? I think that is the question we should all ask.

“I hope there is no second guessing now on the US Open because of unfortunate events.”

Has Djokovic’s tour damaged the immediate future of tennis?

That Djokovic has contracted the virus and wrecked his own tour is bad enough but if he has damaged the immediate future of the professional tour, too, that would be unforgivable.

As Murray said, it is not a good look, particularly not on the elected leader of the world’s best players.