February 24, 2021


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Opinion: The PR challenge of Novak Djokovic

After the Belgrade leg, Djokovic posed with ... well, everyone - players, volunteers, tournament staff.


Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world. He may well go down as the best there ever was.

He’s intelligent, intellectually curious, charismatic – especially one on one – and he genuinely appears to want to make the world a better place.

Djokovic has been generous with his considerable fortune in helping out in times of need. The charitable foundation that his wife Jelena runs has done great work with children.

His acts of kindness towards his fellow players and his wider circle, are legendary. Just last January during the ATP Cup, he rented a huge house in Brisbane and invited all his fellow Serbs to stay with him, in the lap of luxury.

He’s a demi-god in his part of the universe; some day, he might well run for high political office in his native Serbia – and win.

But during this pandemic and the resultant shutdown of tennis, he has cumulatively developed … quite the public-relations crisis. And it’s going to be a major challenge to dig himself out of it.

He has a big problem on his hands.

No one is saying this after the fact, an “I told you so” out of personal dislike for Djokovic. I’s been said all along.

And looking at all the photos of close contact and big crowds from even before the Adria Tour began, it’s … jarring.

Djokovic and Borna Coric and a lot of kids at an event ahead of the Croatian leg of the Adria Tour. There was also a kids’ day at the Belgrade stop.

The cluster of positive coronavirus cases that have resulted from the lax health safety measures during his charity Adria Tour – Djokovic himself announced Tuesday that he and his wife both tested positive for the coronavirus – is just the cherry on top of a rapidly-melting sundae.

The final two stops on the tour in Banja Luka, Slovenia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, were immediately cancelled.

In social psychologist Peter Coleman’s book “The Five Percent”, he writes about Dietrich Dorner, the German psychologist and author of “The Logic of Failure” who studies leadership and decision-making in complex environments.

“(Dorner) has suggested that there is more harm done in today’s world by well-intentioned people trying to do good, who are unaware of the unintended consequences of their actions, than by people actually trying to cause harm. Remarkably, this may well be true,” Coleman wrote.

No apologies

When Grigor Dimitrov, the first player on the now-cancelled Adria Tour to test positive, announced he had the virus, he apologized to everyone he came into contact with for any harm he might have caused.

When Borna Coric came up positive, he did the same.

Hugs all around as Djokovic, Borna Coric, Olga Danilovic and Ana Konjuh take part in a mixed-doubles match during the Croatian leg of the Adria Tour.

Russia’s Andrey Rublev, who played in Zadar, Croatia last weekend, tested negative. But he announced that he was going to immediately self-quarantine, out of caution. Alexander Zverev did the same, saying he “deeply apologized to anyone he potentially put at risk by playing the Tour”, and adding that he and his team would continue to be tested regularly.

They said the right things.

In contrast, Djokovic’s statement does not come off nearly as well. Granted, he has a lot more at stake, as the Adria Tour was his brainchild and in the end, the buck stops with him.

Only in the penultimate paragraph (the ninth of 10) does Djokovic say he is “extremely sorry for each individual case of infection.” Prior to that, the statement is full of rhetoric about the selfless intent of the project, the “pure heart” and “sincere intentions” and “philanthropic idea”.

The tone combines a little bit of defence combined with “it’s not my fault; I meant well”. It was not the right tone; even the best of intentions don’t change an outcome.

“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.” – Albert Camus, the Plague

A false sense of security

Djokovic was asymptomatic. But so was Coric. Still, the Serb opted to fly back to Belgrade with his family and get tested there the following day, rather than join the big group of players and personnel around the Zadar event who were tested Sunday in Croatia.

No doubt he had his reasons. But it was not a good look.

And there’s another problem with the statement: the notion that the coronavirus still being present is some sort of “new reality we are still leaning to cope and live with”.

All notions of social distancing and protection basically went down the chute as the fans packed the stands in Belgrade to see their idol, Novak Djokovic. These were emotional moments for the world No. 1, who rarely has an opportunity to perform before his countrymen and women. But in the end, it was a disaster.

Most informed people, even those in countries where the potential damage wrought by COVID-19 was mitigated by strict measures from the first signs of trouble, understand that it never left. The measures were to flatten the curve, to ease the surge of pressure on medical facilities and health workers as much as possible. None of those measures attacked the virus itself, which is looking for windows to crawl through wherever a door is closed.

As with many other countries, Serbia and Croatia were highly motivated to loosen the restrictions and re-open for business. The evidence of the uptick or surge in cases where governments have taken steps to return to normal is everywhere. And you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that once there is increased contact between humans, it’s all but inevitable given what we know about how the virus spreads.

In the case of Serbia, the guidelines that now allow for large sporting gatherings are new and still fairly untested. A large crowd for a soccer match shortly before the Adria Tour kicked off in Belgrade may yet have consequences; but when the Adria Tour disregarded even the most basic health safety measures, the verdict wasn’t yet in on the fallout.

And there was another element at play – admitted out loud by both Djokovic and the deputy mayor of Belgrade when he visited the event: they want the ATP Tour back in town. Showing off this great event, with this enthousiastic crowd, was a great advertisement for that.

The Serbia Open lasted four years, a decade ago. But without the constant participation of Djokovic, it was going to be tough to sustain it long term; after the 2012 edition, which couldn’t attract anyone ranked in the top 35, the Djokovic family ceased operations. (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

In Croatia, a country even more successful at mitigating the virus than Serbia, tourism makes up 25 per cent of the GDP. A successful, well-attended event would have been a loud-and-proud announcement that the country was open for business this summer.

In both cases, it proved to be the wrong call.

Listening to the science

Earlier during the pandemic, Djokovic got himself into a public-relations scrape with his stated uncertainty about getting a potential mandatory vaccine to compete on the ATP Tour, when and if it’s discovered. And he then used his massive platform to tout some of his more holistic life philosophies on Instagram Live – notably with the hawker of a line of expensive products whose goal is “to steward life-long learning, advanced knowledge and optimum health”.

The criticism again came quickly. But instead of reading the room, Djokovic doubled down.

Djokovic meets Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic ahead of the Adria Tour stop in Croatia. (Pic: Croatian Tennis Association, via AP).

The stubbornness that helped him reach the top of the tennis pyramid is a double-edged sword. We’re told that some people did try to tell him that he needed to be more mindful. But he was so convinced he was doing the right thing, there was no stopping him. Again, he didn’t read the room.

Installing Djordje, who doesn’t appear to have much experience, as tournament director was a nice bone to throw at his youngest brother. But it was just one more voice of reason that wasn’t going to be heard.

In contrast, Djokovic’s longtime friend Janko Tipsarevic, who is running a six-week tournament at his own academy in Belgrade, did appear to listen to advice and scaled down – reluctantly at first – what had once been more ambitious plans for his own event.

There once had also been plans for fans in the stands once the situation in Serbia allowed for it. But that was abandoned. Tipsarevic instituted more health safety measures – masks, temperature checks, and even testing when he has felt it was necessary.

Grown men, making their own decisions

Dimitrov and Djokovic battle for the ball during a pickup game ahead of the Croatian leg of the Adria Tour. Days later, Dimitrov withdrew, went home to Monte Carlo, and became the first announced positive test for the coronavirus.

In the end, the decisions by all these adult tennis players to participate, even without any safety protocols, was entirely their own. It was their call to hug and shake hands, to play basketball together, to party together. They all went along with it.

At the same time – and we saw evidence of this most recently during the brushfire situation early on in the Australian Open – most tennis players have an almost naïve trust that tournaments, agents and others involved in the sport have their best interests at heart. They have confidence that people will … just take care of things.

As positive as the situation in Serbia was looking a few weeks ago, the fact that this event had several players flying in from several countries to take part was a red flag from the get-go. There’s a reason countries most successful in mitigating the virus shut their borders: because it works as a containment measure.

Three of the four players in this photo have confirmed they tested positive for the coronavirus. The fate of Pedja Krstin is known at this time..

It appears Zverev did the right things; even though he spent most of the shutdown in Florida training in an environment that never really closed to the outside. He had returned to Germany, tested negative, and quarantined for 14 days before flying to Serbia.

Dimitrov was in Palm Springs, Calif., flew to Serbia, then spent a few days in Bulgaria, then went to Croatia.

He wasn’t feeling well – and likely should have withdrawn immediately and been tested. Djordje Djokovic told the Serbian media that when Djokovic’s coach, Croatian tennis hero Goran Ivanisevic, came down with a fever earlier in the week, he was tested – twice (both negative).

But even without the fact that they all threw caution to the wind – almost taunting the virus – throughout these two weekends, there were still elements there that required more than an oblivious belief that the countries had beaten down the virus.

Nobody has beaten it so far.

And so Djokovic finds himself in a heck of a jam. Beyond the disaster that was a well-intentioned tour, he had at least a tacit responsibility, as the No. 1 player in the world and the president of the ATP Tour player council, to ensure that his project did no harm to the sport’s stumbling attempts to restart amid a pandemic.

His statement on social media later Tuesday added a few extra words: “We were wrong”. But was not much different from the original other than to reach out to those who were in attendance.

He’s going to get crushed by this – as one of the most famous athletes in the world, testing positive, and the head of the circus, the media attention will go well beyond the infinitesimal bounds of people on Twitter who never liked him anyway.

How he deals with it, in the late stages of his tennis career and with an entire life to live after he’s done playing, is a crisis-management exercise that will need to be executed to perfection.