The grand finale of the Croatia leg of Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, where Djokovic and Andrey Rublev of Russia were to square off, was cancelled on Sunday.
They didn’t have much choice.
Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov had looked quite under the weather during a match against Borna Coric the previous day. He pulled out of the Tour, returned home to Monaco and … tested positive for COVID-19.
The 29-year-old Bulgarian, who had spent the pandemic in California before flying to Belgrade for the first leg of the Adria Tour in Belgrade last week, was wearing a mask in the photo he posted. Given the circumstances, that was nothing short of ironic.
Monday morning, Coric announced that he, too, had also contracted the virus. And he may not be the last.
On Monday, more bad news.
Belgrade opener anything but safe
From the first moments of Djokovic’s charity initiative, which began in Belgrade shortly after the country, not hard-hit by the coronavirus, opened up the possibility of having large crowds at sporting events, there was criticism.
Djokovic defended the event. “We have different circumstances and measures so it’s very difficult to think of international standards,” he said. “
“You can also criticize us and say this is maybe dangerous but it’s not up to me to make the calls about what is right or wrong for health,” Djokovic said. “We are doing what the Serbian government is telling us and hopefully we soon will get back on tour collectively. Of course, lives have been lost and that’s horrible to see, in the region and worldwide. But life goes on, and we as athletes are looking forward to competing.”
The thing about government guidelines is that some people complain they’re too restrictive when it inconveniences them. But when they’re loosened up and people can go about their business, all of a sudden the government knows best. That’s universal. They are guidelines – the minimum requirements. But there’s no shame, or penalty, for going beyond.
And there’s evidence that the event did not, in fact conform to even the loosened guidelines, which recommend a metre’s distance between the fans. That, obviously, did not happen.
The event may well have abided by the governments’ recommendations. But that didn’t mean they weren’t playing with fire.
But there was another element to the big fan turnout in Belgrade, one that went all but unnoticed amid the criticisms from some about the lack of health security precautions taken.
It was good for business; there was a method to the seeming madness.
When Belgrade deputy mayor Goran Vesic visited the tournament and presented a flag to the tournament director – Djokovic’s youngest brother Djordje – he was pretty transparent.
“Today, a beautiful picture goes from Belgrade to the world, because this is the most important tennis tournament that is organized after the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to Djokovic and his idea, Belgrade hosts famous tennis players. The audience arrives, I am happy that all the tickets have been distributed, which means that Belgrade has longed for both tennis and sports events, which shows that we are a sports nation,“ Vesic said.
“As a city, we are ready, together with the Djokovic family, to stand behind the idea of Belgrade winning the permanent ATP tournament that we had a few years ago.”
Serbia had indeed escaped the worst of the virus, shutting things down early on with measures that were considered strict – almost draconian – at the time. A state of emergency was declared March 15, and elections scheduled to be held in April were postponed until … today.
With a population of approximately 8.7 million, it is approaching 13,000 total cases, with 261 deaths.
C’mon in – everything’s fine!
There was no negative coronavirus test required, not any period of quarantine, for travellers coming into Serbia.
As Djokovic and the event team insisted they had not gone afoul of the government’s guidelines, Serbia’s minister of health said on June 8 that it was putting the onus on its citizens.
“We have to adapt that the corona virus is there and we have to live with it. We must adhere to protection measures so that we do not end up in a situation like Northern Macedonia, ” Zlatibor Loncar said. “The state cannot keep measures and restrain everything indefinitely. Now the most important thing is our personal responsibility.”
It’s not as though there hadn’t already been a warning sign; Djokovic had attended an event with Serbian basketball star Nikola Jankovic, who tested positive for the virus three days later as he left Serbia (and had been asymptomatic).
But there was no emphasis on the fact that the players taking part were tested – if indeed they were tested at all despite travelling in from abroad.
And the third leg of the Adria Tour, scheduled for Montenegro next weekend, was cancelled as Serbia does not yet meet the country’s epidemiological guidelines for entry into their country.
Concurrently in Belgrade, Djokovic’s friend Janko Tipsarevic is holding an ongoing event at his academy. But there are no fans at that one.
No social distancing
The event’s decision was to just let it fly. Thousands of people packed into the stands at Djokovic’s academy. Djokovic himself personally greeted such stars as Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem (who had been in Austria) and Alexander Zverev (who spent the entire period after the cancellation of Indian Wells in Florida, which has now become a hotspot in the U.S.).
There were hugs. They played basketball together in close quarters. There were no health security measures taken on court (even the young ballkids didn’t wear masks or gloves). There were not many masks spotted in the stands. A huge kids’ day event was held.
And when the Belgrade leg was over, the players partied.
Tour moves to Zadar
Meanwhile, Tour moved onto Zadar, Croatia this weekend, and added Marin Cilic to the lineup.
In between, you’d expect players returned to their residences in Monte Carlo – only to take another flight to Croatia a few days later.
Again, no restrictions on entry. And while there appeared to be a few more masks in the stands, few precautions.
Croatia flattened the COVID curve even more effectively than Serbia, with just over 2,300 total cases (and 107 deaths), with a little more than half its population. Only six cases were reported between May 23 and June 12. But 18 new cases have been reported in Croatia in the last 24 hours.
But with the re-opening – so crucial to Croatia, where 25 per cent of the GDP comes from tourism – came an increase in cases. That’s a phenomenon that has repeated itself around the world; the flattening of that curve, while creating a sense of confidence among people who want to get back to their lives, in no way means the virus is “gone”.
State Secretary at the Ministry of Health Tomislav Dulibić emphasized that Croatia still has a favorable epidemiological picture, but stressed that “Citizens must be aware that the number of outbreaks in the world and the number of new cases in Croatia is growing. Therefore, it is necessary to further adhere to precautionary measures, respect the physical distance and prevent the spread of the infection with maximum responsible behavior,” Dulibić said.
Nevertheless, they persisted. With an almost predictable outcome.
That last line of the Adria Tour’s statement seems a little ironic now. Going beyond the minimum guidelines set out by the countries given the fact that players were coming in from outside the country, and setting an example for all of tennis might, have saved them – at the very least – a lot of hassle.
The first thing is that the organizers are going to have to make a major effort to track down everyone Dimitrov has been in contact with the last 10 days – no minor feat.
The tournament said Sunday that “everyone” who had come into contact with Dimitrov felt find, had no symptoms, yada yada yada. But, “despite that”, several players and team members were tested on a voluntarily basis on Sunday.
Also according to Blic, the news of Dimitrov’s positive test came when Djokovic and Rublev were warming up for the final.
Blic later reported that Djokovic immediately headed back to Belgrade, and was to be tested there along with his family.
Djordje Djokovic and Goran Ivanisevic, who was the point man for the Croatian leg, are quoted here.
The way everyone has been interacting, who knows what the ultimate fallout might be. SportKlub reports that Novak Djoković’s fitness coach Marko Paniki and Grigor Dimitrov’s coach Kristijan Groh also came up positive.
There was no clear indication of how many of the staff on site who had contact with the players were tested. Reportedly only 22 people were tested in total (with three positives) although more than 100 people, including the mayor of Zadar and many children, are self-isolating.
Rublev and Cilic have gone into 14-day self-isolation; just two weeks ago, Cilic posed at close range with a host of fellow Croatian players.
On Monday, Zverev confirmed the good news that he and his team had tested negative. Zverev said he would self-isolate and continue to be tested.
(You also have to ask this question: if Dimitrov was feeling poorly, why did he even show up at the venue and play at all?)
There’s no way to know yet if Dimitrov is the one who brought the virus into the Adria Tour family; he may well have caught it from someone else. And it’s going to be a lot of work to get everyone straightened away. The Tour’s matches in Montenegro being cancelled next weekend, although they have been looking at an alternate site, perhaps in Slovenia. There is one final leg in Bosnia-Herzogovina in two weeks.
Given the two (at least) positive tests, it wouldn’t be responsible to continue the tour – at least not without a radical change in approach.
Testing elsewhere on the return tour
Meanwhile, Dominic Thiem headed to Biot, France after the weekend in Belgrade, to take part in another exhibition.
Patrick Mouratoglou’s Ultimate Tennis Showdown is being played without fans. And there are a fair few health precautions being taken although the lack of masks is still fairly significant.
You just hope that Thiem didn’t bring it with him. And that they keep testing him. And Alexander Zverev as well, since he’s reportedly known to be diabetic.
There are several other events coming up – including the all-female exhibition in Charleston beginning on Tuesday. The players are being tested upon arrival, although they still have some work to do on the social distancing front.
The British players involved in a national event there are also being tested.
As tennis plans to open its doors again (albeit in all likelihood without fans) in a little over six weeks, we’ll see what the future holds.
That’s especially true for the US Open, which is a bigger undertaking than all of them.
One thing we do know – every sport in the U.S. that has tried to restart activities – notably baseball down in Florida this last week – has been hit with positive coronavirus tests.