World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s goal is to be remembered as tennis’ GOAT (Greatest Player of All Time). Right now, the 33-year-old Serb’s legacy might be tainted severely by his role as organizer of the Adria Tour, a two-week charity event in the Balkans during a deadly pandemic. Thus far, four of the eight players, including Djokovic, have tested positive for COVID-19. Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and fitness coach, Marco Panichi, also tested positive.
NBC Sports’ Mary Carillo was among several pros and former pros, who sharply criticized Djokovic for not requiring the 4,000 fans, eight players and staff members at the event to observe widely publicized guidelines recommended to lessen the impact of a highly contagious virus that already has infected more than 10 million people and killed more than a half million worldwide. “No global pandemic protocols were followed at all,” Carillo told MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. “They were shaking hands at the net and dancing without shirts, it was horrifying to watch. He’s a bright guy, but he does not believe in the sanctity of science. He’s someone who thinks that science is just another opinion and that scares the hell out of me.”
In an interview with Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper, Barbara Rittner, captain of the German Fed Cup team said, “The whole world keeps distance and wears masks, (but) at the Adria they sat shoulder-to-shoulder without masks, partied and hugged while topless.” Australia’s No. 17 Nick Kyrgios, of Australia and former pro Chris Evert also chimed in.
“Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition,’ speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols,” Kyrgios tweeted. “THIS IS NOT A JOKE.” Said Evert: “I don’t understand. No safe distancing, total physical contact, no face masks, even the fans were without masks. I don’t get it. Not smart. Hope no one else tests positive. Get well, Grigor (Dimitrov).”
The Tour’s final, which was set for Croatia last Sunday, was cancelled after three players No.17 Dimitrov, No. 33 Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki tested positive for COVID-19. Responding to the heavy criticism in a statement, Djokovic said, “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. 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.”
The tennis season is expected to resume in August, but that might change if the virus’ infection rate among players increases sharply before then. The two-week best-of-five set U.S. Open (hardcourt), which begins August 31, will be followed – after a two-week break – by the French Open (clay), the game’s most physically demanding best-of-five set event. “It’s not safe for players to go from the semifinals or finals in New York and then play in Madrid in altitude on clay when players haven’t played in a very long time.” Great Britain’s Andy Murray said. Nadal is expected to play only one of the major events.
Barring complications from COVID-19 infection, Djokovic, with Ivanisevic as his coach, believes he’ll retire as the game’s all-time greatest male player. Djokovic’s major rivals for the GOAT title are Roger Federer, 38, and Nadal, 34. Federer holds 20 major titles (including 8 Wimbledons) and Nadal has 19 majors (including 12 French Opens), two more than Djokovic. “What Roger and Nadal are doing is epic,” Djokovic said. “Both are legends. They made me the player I am, and they still inspire me and motivate me to be even better.” He considers the three-way rivalry a boost for the sport.
“I’m very passionate and devoted to (tennis),” he said. “As long as there is that flair in me, I am going to keep going.”
Carillo believes COVID-19 might force some athletes to follow a different, slower path back to their workplace. “I wouldn’t blame any athlete in any sport if (he/she) decides to sit it out until someone makes a vaccine that proves to make (he/she) and family safe,” Carillo said.