Tennis had its Dominic Cummings moment this week, when four Top 50 male players tested positive for Covid-19 after playing in Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour. This series of exhibition tournaments, held in Belgrade, Serbia and Zadar, Croatia – where they were abandoned on Sunday – turned from an expression of goodwill, raising funds to fight the pandemic, to a completely avoidable nightmare that set off virus outbreaks in both countries. Hubris governed a tour where social distancing was ignored, stadiums were filled to capacity and some of the ATP’s most tactile players were given free rein on the basketball court and in nightclubs. Grigor Dimitrov, visibly ailing in a match on Saturday, flew home to Monte Carlo before taking a test revealing him positive and symptomatic for Covid-19. Borna Coric, Victor Troicki and Novak Djokovic himself also tested positive without symptoms, with Djokovic similarly willing to carry his disease across international boundaries before deigning to take a test. At least his competitors, shaken by Dimitrov’s revelation, waited in Zadar to test themselves before fleeing the scene of the wreckage.
This arrogance reveals the danger of bringing back international sport amid a novel pandemic and, like Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham, suggests the existence of an elite – political or athletic – who need not concern themselves with trivial public health measures. Cummings contravened lockdown rules, but likely infected few. The reckless administration of the Adria Tour may have caused the infection of thousands of spectators, many of whom will be symptomatic and pass the disease on. The official numbers speak for themselves: having brought the pandemic under control in mid-May, Serbia reported 137 cases today and Croatia 95. Croatia has reimposed a quarantine for visitors from neighbouring Balkan states. The source of the outbreak is contested – Dimitrov may have been the “super spreader” introducing the disease from Bulgaria or the United States – but ultimately it was Djokovic who organised and set the breezy tone for the tour. It was probably a matter of if, not when, the virus would emerge in such circumstances.
Like Cummings, Djokovic needs to be rebuked – removed from his position as President of the ATP Player Council, at least – to reinforce the magnitude of the public health crisis caused by his Adria Tour. The Serb has expressed his sorrow for the infection caused, but his statement of Tuesday suggests that organising the event with a ‘pure heart and sincere intentions’ – rather than social distancing – excuses his irresponsibility. And, like Cummings, it seems unlikely that he will face further sanctions. Djokovic has been a popular leader of the Player Council, advocating for better remuneration of players ranked outside the Top 100 (although his attention has strayed during the pandemic). It would require a majority of the 12-player board to replace him: a momentous, political move for a council containing both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s online fan base, or #NoleFam, already regard the journalistic pile-on as a conspiracy engineered by supporters of his great rivals. The toxic world of social media echo chambers, anti-truth fervour and the decline of conventional wisdom would have it that Djokovic escapes this unscathed.
Novak Djokovic has always had an on-again, off-again, relationship with science. As commentator Mary Carillo warned on MSNBC yesterday, ‘He's one of so many people in this world – and especially in our country [the US], it seems – who think that science is just another opinion.’ In 2010, having suffered a series of physical breakdowns on court, Djokovic took a consultation involving a piece of bread rested on his arm – which felt weak in consequence – that inspired him to cut out gluten and take up the plant-based diet he follows with such great results to this day. But the success of this evidence-free reasoning was fluke, rather than design; Djokovic’s penchant for spirituality led in 2017 to his hiring a “mental guru”, Pepe Imaz, to teach “the power of lengthy lungs” and “quantum theory”. Unsurprisingly, his period with Imaz coincided with poor results by Djokovic’s standards.
Since the onset of Covid-19, the Serb’s naïve acceptance of fringe “medical” beliefs has strayed from the idiosyncratic to the dangerous. First came Djokovic’s contention that he would probably not take a vaccine if it was required to return to the tour. Perhaps this was an expression of caution in the face of a novel disease, but his later hosting of several Instagram Live sessions with Chervin Jafarieh, an entrepreneur – if the spirit of the word extends to con-artists who charge $50 a bottle for homeopathic water – would suggest that the world #1 is a full-on anti-vaxxer. With Jafarieh, Djokovic discussed “self-mastery”: a capacious title covering such nonsense as how the power of “gratitude” can change the molecular structure of food and purify dirty water. (Mary Carillo: ‘Try telling that to the people of Flint, Michigan.’) Meanwhile, his wife Jelena was busy sharing the conspiracy that 5G masts transmit coronavirus. For a couple who treat science as a game and think witch doctors might provide interesting viewing for 7.3 million Instagram followers, the catastrophic Adria Tour error seems unsurprising.
The impact of Djokovic’s actions on legions of diehard fans makes it so important that he is sanctioned after the Adria Tour blunder. We cannot allow the narrative from Djokovic’s father that Dimitrov was the virus carrier at fault; it has already been rebuked by the Serb’s perennial critic, Nick Kyrgios. The Serbian and Croatian authorities must be questioned for failing to monitor the event, but it is not their fault for allowing the tour, in good faith, to proceed. Nor is it a reasonable excuse – from the #NoleFam – that some athletes will inevitably get Covid-19 if sports restart before a vaccine, making the Adria Tour proof of an unavoidable reality. Dozens of Premier League footballers have tested positive for Covid-19, but self-isolated and prevented a wider outbreak. Unblinkered loyalty to a champion who stands underappreciated in the eyes of many cannot mask Djokovic’s egregious flouting of public health restrictions amid a pandemic. Social media may not reflect reality, but the doubling-down I have seen to defend Djokovic – notably on Twitter – has reached Trumpian levels.
If tennis is to survive this pandemic, in reputation and financially, Djokovic cannot head the Player Council. The American No. #225 Noah Rubin has questioned his continued tenure, having been critical of Djokovic’s decision to play basketball with Adria Tour compatriots rather than attend a Zoom call on the US Open and future income status of Top 400 players. The remaining 11 council members, who have the ultimate power to replace Djokovic, are yet to speak out on the issue, despite reports of growing discontent within the ATP. Perhaps this situation will change, but it seems likely that such a decision would have to be made unanimously to prevent appearances of factionalism that could further weaken tennis’ reputation. Heavyweights Federer and Nadal, while members of the council, are habitually reticent in tennis politics. During lockdown they have participated in a botched PR effort to take credit for the idea of an ATP-WTA merger (first proposed by Billie Jean King in 1973) rather than serious discussions about the logistical future of the sport. As such, it seems likely that without a groundswell against Djokovic, he will remain like Dominic Cummings – in post: an exemplar of the out-of-touch establishment that has seemed all too real for his mortal colleagues since March.
As Andy Murray noted yesterday at the Battle of the Brits – an indoor event, devised by his brother, with rigorous pandemic measures in place – Djokovic’s tour was ‘not a good look for tennis… maybe this has put the US Open in doubt’. The measures imposed by the United States Tennis Association so as not to cancel their annual event are stricter than those in Balkan countries: Murray conceded, ‘no fans for a start’. Yet the Adria Tour raised the question of whether players can be trusted to isolate in hotel rooms between matches, which is a requisite for the US Open to function. Should a player foray into midtown Manhattan, contract the virus and pass it on, the whole tournament might have to be cancelled and the USTA itself would sit on the verge of liquidation. Should they consider banning attendees of the Adria Tour? This would be extreme, but future ATP and WTA events may have to consider draconian measures to ensure safe tournaments, with adverse effects on privacy, coaching access and mental health.
It is too early to tell whether this error of judgment has humbled Djokovic and led him to consider his pandemic-resistant worldview. He concedes that the Adria Tour was held too soon, but the key point is that it was held in an imaginary, virus-free world, disregarding public health. The tour was an extension of his personal sense of infallibility, as a 17-time Grand Slam champion: a mental and physical specimen. I’m not convinced that he has lost it.