Novak Djokovic, the brains behind the three-week Adria exhibition tour through four countries in the Balkans, will be rueing the day he planned this first tentative return of competitive tennis since March.
After the first weekend in his home city of Belgrade, Serbia, the Tour moved to Zadar, Croatia, and that is where the trouble began—though there is no doubt that the Covid-19 infection was already present among the players.
Grigor Dimitrov was the first to test positive and is, thus far, the only one to show symptoms, and was clearly unwell in his first match in Zadar against Borna Coric. The Bulgarian then announced his positive test on Instagram just moments before world No1 Djokovic was due to face Andrey Rublev in the final.
Once news broke that Dimitrov had tested, the final in Croatia was abandoned. He said:
“Hi everyone, I want to reach out and let my fans and friends know that I tested positive back in Monaco for Covid-19. I want to make sure anyone who has been in contact with me during these past days gets tested and takes the necessary precautions. I am so sorry for any harm I might have caused. I am back home now and recovering. Thanks for your support and please stay safe and healthy.”
Fellow players were then tested in Croatia, except Djokovic, who went back to Belgrade to undergo testing separately. Subsequently, both Coric and Viktor Troicki, along with Troicki’s pregnant wife, confirmed positive results.
Coric announced on Twitter:
“Hi everyone, I wanted to inform you all that I tested positive for COVID-19. I want to make sure anyone who has been in contact with me during the last few days gets tested! I am really sorry for any harm I might have caused! I’m feeling well and don’t have any symptoms. Please stay safe and healthy.”
Rublev, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev all tested negative, but all have committed to isolation for 14 days, as recommended by health experts around the world. That is because some tests prove to be ‘false negatives’ and, in addition, the virus can incubate for several days before symptoms emerge. In some cases, hosts may carry the virus and show no symptoms at all.
Zverev said on Twitter:
“I have just received the news that my team and I have tested negative for COVID-19. I deeply apologise to anyone that I have potentially put at risk by playing this tour. I will proceed to follow the self-isolating guidelines advised by our doctors. As an added precaution, my team and I will continue with regular testing. I wish everyone who has tested positive a speedy recovery. Stay safe.”
However, the actions of Dominic Thiem, who played in Belgrade and then headed to another exhibition event, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS) at the Mouratoglou Academy in Nice, raised some eyebrows. In theory, despite confirming negative test results, Thiem should also be self-isolating for another few days.
The good thing about the UTS is that it is being played behind closed doors and with minimal physical contact. The Adria Tour events had no such restrictions, with crowds of around 4,000 attending each day, little wearing of masks, and no social distancing. Indeed the players hugged at the net, embraced for photos, played basketball together, and enjoyed a much-filmed night-club celebration along the way.
And with Djokovic himself at the centre of most of the events, PR, and social activities in Belgrade and Zadar, it always looked a strong possibility that he would be infected by one of his colleagues.
Sure enough, he announced on his website on Tuesday afternoon:
“The moment we arrived in Belgrade we went to be tested. My result is positive, just as Jelena’s, while the results of our children are negative.
“Everything we did in the past month, we did with a pure heart and sincere intentions. Our tournament meant to unite and share a message of solidarity and compassion throughout the region.
“The Tour has been designed to help both established and up and coming tennis players from SE Europe to gain access to some competitive tennis while the various tours are on hold due to the COVID-19 situation. It was all born with a philanthropic idea, to direct all raised funds towards people in need and it warmed my heart to see how everybody strongly responded to this.
“We organized the tournament at the moment when the virus has weakened, believing that the conditions for hosting the Tour had been met. Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with.
“I am hoping things will ease with time so we can all resume lives the way they were. I am extremely sorry for each individual case of infection. I hope that it will not complicate anyone’s health situation and that everyone will be fine.
“I will remain in self-isolation for the next 14 days, and repeat the test in five days.”
Djokovic’s younger brother, Djordje, who is the tournament’s director, initially insisted: “We tried our best to respect all measures, and we did respect all measures imposed by the governments of Serbia and Croatia.”
But while the infection rate has been considerably lower in the Baltic region than across other parts of Europe, enabling some of the restrictions to be lifted, the virus has remained active. And of course, the nature of tennis is that players converge in one place from a wide range of destinations.
As a result of this tennis breakout, therefore, the remaining events in Bosnia and Herzegovina have now been cancelled. Djordje Djokovic said:
“Unfortunately, due to all the events that happened in the last few days, we have decided that the most important thing right now is to stabilise the epidemiological situation, as well as for everyone to recover.”
Battle of the Brits
However, there is live tennis to be enjoyed this week, as Andy Murray breaks cover to play competitively for the first time since last November.
He will join fellow British ATP players in a six-day charity event organised by Murray’s brother Jamie, the Battle of the Brits. Proceeds from broadcasting rights will go to NHS Charities Together.
Also playing are British No1 Dan Evans, ranked 28, Kyle Edmund, 44, Cameron Norrie, 77, Jay Clarke, 167, Liam Broady, 211, Jack Draper, 285, and James Ward, 273, plus a full doubles schedule.
The set-up could not be more different from the Adria Tour: It is being played behind closed doors at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, with electronic line calling and no ball-kids—players collect their own balls (and towels, should they feel the need).
Play is being covered on BBC and Amazon Prime from 23-28 June.
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