June 22, 2020

Oh, Novak - Part Two

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the tennis community really stepped up. It proactively closed down tournaments to contain the spread, entertained us with the most creative of #TennisAtHome moments, donated millions of dollars to supply protective gear to medical staff. And after weeks of debate and discussion, we finally came up with a plan to hold the U.S. Open on schedule, in a way that will hopefully mitigate risk.

But after this weekend, we seem to have taken a huge step back.

At least two players at Novak Djokovic's Adria Cup tested positive for COVID-19 at an event in Croatia -- Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric. And honestly, it's no surprise.

There were little to no precautions taken at the event, which kicked off June 12th in Belgrade and was slated to travel to Montenegro this weekend. Press rooms were packed seat-to-seat, stadium risers were full of fans, players shook hands, hugged and even interacted with ball kids, and crowds gathered en masse outdoors.

Now, I get the need and desire to return to normal. We're all tired and restless after being couped up for months, and there is a real necessity for people to get back to work and earn a paycheck -- even for tennis players, the majority of whom have been effectively unemployed since March. But these exhibition matches felt less like a way to bring in a little cash and more a chance for some chest thumping.

And it may come as no surprise that Djokovic is at the center of it.

Though he contributed generously to relief efforts early on, he also raised a lot of eyebrows when he expressed his aversion to getting a coronavirus vaccine if and when one is available, also spouting some questionable "theories" about changing the molecular composition of water with your emotions. More recently he took issue with the U.S. Open saying it may limit players' entourages to one person, calling that an "impossible" condition. It bares noting that his fitness coach in Zadar this weekend just tested positive as well.

At the start of the Adria tour, Djokovic seemed to brush off concerns about safety protocols since the region hadn't seen as bad an outbreak as other hotspots and so, presumably, didn't need to be as careful. Now, with Sunday's championship match and next weekend's Montenegro leg called off, hopefully he's reconsidering.

But we need more.

Nole is, far and away, the elder statesman of this group. Not that Dimitrov, 28, and the rest of the players who participated -- mostly in their early to mid 20s -- shouldn't have known better, none of them participated against their will. But Djokovic has clout and a platform and, frankly, a responsibility that the others don't. And yet, we haven't seen a statement from him, nor an apology. And if photos over the last few days are any evidence, he's one of the few involved who hasn't gotten tested. (CORRECTION: Djokovic did get tested and is currently waiting for results of his COVID test. Though he took it after leaving Croatia, and after Dimitrov announced he was positive.)

Who knows what this weekend's developments will mean for the U.S. Open and other tournaments currently on the calendar for August. If cancelled, that again puts players in need of any prize money in a bind. But if not, the risks could be much worse.

This is an important time, not just for tennis but for the world. And the world's most influential people owe it to the rest of us, if not to make a difference, then at least to set an example.

And if the top ranked player in the world won't do it, who will?

No comments: