After all the hugging, football games, invasions of personal space, dancing in stuffy Belgrade clubs, kids’ days, basketball games and more, the enduring images of the fateful Adria Tour should be the final ones. Following the cancellation of the championship match, the deflated players were ushered into a parking lot at the dead of night as they queued to see whether they too had been infected after Grigor Dimitrov’s positive coronavirus test.
Some of the details were striking. After two weeks of bros prancing around big crowds in the middle of a pandemic, everyone was suddenly wearing a mask for the first time. The photos also underlined how young the players involved were. Borna Coric, who also contracted the virus, Alexander Zverev, Donna Vekic and Andrey Rublev are grown enough to be responsible for their own decisions, but there needed to be better guidance from the elders around them. Most importantly, there was one absence. Arguably the best tennis player of all time had invited them all to his event and exposed them to unsafe conditions, but as they nervously waited he was nowhere to be seen.
It is now known that Novak Djokovic crossed borders with coronavirus in his system, as his long-awaited statement confirmed on Tuesday, marking an apt conclusion to a surreal saga. The schadenfreude has already started, but this is serious. This entire lockdown has been catastrophic for Djokovic’s reputation, dating back to those vaccine discussions and his Instagram live talks with numerous snake oil salesmen. People cackled at how loud and wrong Djokovic’s pseudoscientific assertions were, but the sight of Djokovic gullibly noting down each nonsensical belief spouted towards him was just disappointing and sad.
There have been fiery discussions about how dangerous the word of a tennis player could even be, and now we have a clear conclusion. When people first stared at those crammed Belgrade crowds in horror, he reflexively pointed out that those criticisms stemmed from “the West”. They perhaps only emboldened the will to showcase Serbia’s mistaken “victory” over the virus. Opinions stemming from countries such as Britain and the US indeed can be sanctimonious and grating, but there is also such a thing as common sense. There are basic scientific realities that have been relayed for months, which have been badly ignored.
Reality is something that male tennis players in general have not been part of for three months. Grigor Dimitrov is one of the most pleasant people in the sport but, as with the likes of Dominic Thiem and Zverev, he has spent the past few weeks trapezing around the globe in the middle of a pandemic, apparently without ever imagining he could catch and spread the virus himself. That, too, is dangerous.
There has been speculation about when Dimitrov first felt coronavirus symptoms, but his decision to fistbump Coric and the umpire after his lethargic defeat on Saturday was revelatory. Instead of testing for coronavirus in Zadar, he travelled to Monaco the next morning. On Tuesday, his manager’s reason for their decision was laughable: “They often have ailments and still try to play,” he said. “We didn’t have such worries [about coronavirus], none of us thought about it.”
In his statement on Tuesday, Djokovic underlined the wish to hold the tournament for philanthropic reasons. There is a conversation to be had about nationalistic beliefs, but it is easy to believe he sincerely wanted to promote unity among some of his neighbours. As he showed the world the beautiful Zadar old town, the Croat media were taken by him: “Croatia is watching the best tennis player of all time, a charismatic athlete and friend of our country,” wrote 24sata.hr. A couple of weeks later, he was due to travel to Bosnia where the Serb would face his Bosnian friend Damir Dzumhur, who was born there during the war in the 1990s. They would have played in Sarajevo.
Instead, along with the Serb and Croat federations that were so swept up in hosting the best player in the world, they too failed to take all precautions in the middle of a pandemic to keep their audience safe. Around a dozen prominent people have tested positive. Since all indications underlined that an event such as this involving Djokovic was coming, there isn’t much to learn from it. Who knows how many other people were touched by the virus as they stood amid large crowds, or by the droplets left in Djokovic’s and Dimitrov’s wake as they crossed borders to reach home. A measure of the consequence of every decision: Monaco hadn’t registered a single coronavirus case for a full three weeks. On 21 June, the streak was broken.