NOVAK DJOKOVIC OCCUPIES an unusual space in our public imagination. In a world divided between loyalties towards either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, Djokovic is neither presented with our love nor our hate. He is seldom missed and acknowledged only grudgingly.
And yet again and again, he has intruded into our mental landscape. We first grudgingly admitted him as a member, along with Andy Murray, Federer and Nadal, of the Big Four. And now he stands within kissing distance of both Nadal’s and Federer’s records.
Djokovic is now at the front and centre of everyone’s mind. And not for something he would have wished for. He has been found positive for Covid-19, something entirely of his own doing. He has always had some odd views. He has said he believes in telepathy and telekinesis; he once hired a coach, Pepe Imaz, who taught him ‘telepathy and levitation’, and who specialised in giving long hugs. He also had something of an ideological opposition to surgery, preferring to treat an injured elbow with alternative therapy.
These were seen as the eccentricities of one of the world’s top sportspersons. But during this pandemic, some of his ideas have appeared downright dangerous. In a Zoom conference with fellow Serbian athletes two months ago, he revealed that he is opposed to vaccinations. He said he wouldn’t want to be forced to take a Covid-19 vaccine, whenever it becomes ready. His wife, Jelena, also shared a video of the conspiracy theory linking the outbreak to 5G technology. And then the Djokovic-organised and now disastrous Adria Tour took place. And his public image now stands unravelled.
The exhibition tennis tour involving him and a few top tennis players travelling to the three Balkan countries of Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro—where there were spectators, photo-ops, fist-bumps and hugs, and no social distancing or face masks, and where the players even partied in a Belgrade nightclub—ended minutes before the final when one of the players, Grigor Dimitrov, was found to have tested positive.
So far, four players and two of their spouses, including Djokovic and his wife, and two coaches have tested positive. Another Serb athlete, the NBA star Nikola Joki, who had spent time with Djokovic during the Belgrade leg of the tournament, has also tested positive. For all one knows, countless others, from those employed in hosting to fans, could have also been exposed to the infection.
By the time player Borna ori’s test results came in, instead of having himself tested in Croatia, Djokovic fled to Belgrade, potentially exposing many others to the virus.
Soon enough, the reports came in from Belgrade.
This surreal saga hasn’t come to an end though. Amid the heaping criticism and calls for Djokovic to step down from the post of president of the ATP Player Council, there is now acrimony and denial. Djokovic’s father Srdjan has pinned the blame on Dimitrov, the first of the players to test positive, claiming he probably arrived sick to the tournament. Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, meanwhile has said, “It is horrible what is being written, but we are used to it.” Meanwhile, Dimitrov’s agent has responded saying the blame lay with the organisers. Many top tennis players and tournament organisers are also criticising Djokovic.
All this comes at a time when many sporting events are gradually restarting or planning to start. Every one of these, unlike Djokovic’s tournament, come with new regulations. None of them have any spectators now. And they create what they call ‘bio-secure’ environments. In Germany’s football league Bundesliga, for instance, players were barred from meeting visitors or neighbours for a month before the tournament started on May 16th. For the IPL, which many expect to be held some months later, some like Kolkata Knight Riders’ CEO Venky Mysore have suggested the tournament can be held in a place like Mumbai which has four grounds (a fifth nearby in Pune) and where each team can be put up in a separate hotel.
Despite these precautions, even spectator-less events will not be entirely risk-free. They will still bring lots of potentially infectious people together—from players, coaching staff and officials to commentators, camera crews and groundsmen.
As the recklessness exhibited by Djokovic has shown, everyone will need to be cautious.