A match on the Adria Tour, an exhibition circuit organized by Novak Djokovic in the Balkans, was canceled on Sunday after a player tested positive for the coronavirus.
They have not only played tennis in front of big crowds on the Adria Tour. They have hugged, high-fived, and partied together: Some of the players even formed a line and did the limbo on a night out in Belgrade, Serbia.
But the consequences have quickly become much more serious than the mood with two of the tour’s main attractions, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric, announcing they tested positive for the coronavirus and another, Viktor Troicki, doing so, according to a Serbian media report.
And on Tuesday, Novak Djokovic, the top men’s singles player who organized the exhibition series in the Balkans, said he and his wife, Jelena, both tested positive for the virus.
Nick Kyrgios, tweeting from his home nation, Australia, called it “a boneheaded decision” to play the event.
“Speedy recovery fellas,” he wrote in response to the positive tests. “But that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”
Dimitrov, the Bulgarian star and a 2019 United States Open semifinalist, announced his test result on Sunday after returning to his base in Monaco from the tour’s latest stop in Zadar, Croatia.
“I am so sorry for any harm I might have caused,” Dimitrov said on social media.
Coric, a promising Croat ranked 33rd in men’s singles, said on Monday that he also had tested positive. So have Troicki, a prominent Serbian player; Christian Groh, Dimitrov’s coach; and Marco Panichi, Djokovic’s fitness coach, according to media reports in Serbia.
Three other players on the Adria Tour — Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and Andrey Rublev — announced Monday that they had tested negative for the virus but would be self-isolating for 14 days.
“I deeply apologize to anyone that I have potentially put at risk by playing this tour,” Zverev, the seventh-ranked men’s singles player, said on Twitter.
Dimitrov’s announcement forced event officials to call off Sunday’s final between Djokovic and Rublev. Djokovic, who was in frequent physical contact with Dimitrov during the tour, returned to Belgrade to await his test result.
The remainder of the Adria Tour, scheduled to head to Montenegro this week, is now very much in doubt. But the response over the lack of social distancing — which included pickup basketball and a group photo with ball kids — from some in the tennis community has been swift and severe.
“I sum it up as a horror show,” Bruno Soares, a member of the ATP Player Council, of which Djokovic is president, said in an interview with the Brazilian news outlet GloboEsporte. “Enormous irresponsibility and huge immaturity. They were totally careless, and it’s difficult for me to find the words.”
No paragon of self-restraint, Kyrgios has been suspended from the tour for misbehavior and fined frequently. But in this health crisis, he has urged tennis to take a conservative approach, as he also criticized the recent decision to hold the 2020 United States Open on its originally scheduled dates.
But the U.S. Open and the regular tour events that will precede it are to be played without spectators and with strict social distancing requirements. There have been no such limits on the Adria Tour, in part, as Djokovic has explained, because local authorities did not require them. Serbia and neighboring countries have had comparatively few positive coronavirus cases and reported deaths.
Even before Dimitrov and Coric tested positive, there was concern about the optics of full stadiums and partying players with so many still suffering worldwide.
“You’ve got to be aware of who you are and leading by example,” said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former player who has recovered from the coronavirus, referring to Djokovic. He added that it would be “hard to imagine” another top player, like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Serena Williams, holding a similar tour.
When the men’s and women’s tours shut down in March because of the pandemic, Djokovic was undefeated on court in 2020, but he has hardly been on a winning streak during the extended break. He has incited controversy by questioning the necessity of an eventual coronavirus vaccine and explaining that he would have a hard decision to make if getting one were required by the tour. When the U.S. Open announced its plans to protect players from the virus by limiting the size of entourages and restricting players’ movement, Djokovic was an outspoken critic of the idea, calling the plan “extreme” and questioning whether he would play.
But the risks of taking a less cautious approach are now clear, particularly in a sport with an international group of players who have to travel.
“Hopefully people will be able to discern that this isn’t an issue with the concept of returning to tennis but of how you return to tennis,” said Mark Ein, the owner of the Citi Open in Washington, which is scheduled to be the comeback event for the ATP Tour in August. “Even if places feel safe, it’s still prudent to take the basic precautions.”
Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman, said the tour had recommended that players competing on the Adria Tour and in other unsanctioned events take “proper precautions and respect social distancing.” But ultimately the ATP had no jurisdiction to impose safety regulations.
“Obviously we feel sorry for the players,” Gaudenzi said in a telephone interview. “We want them to recover as soon as possible. I know there has been a lot of criticism, but on the other hand, we at the ATP, the U.S.T.A., and everybody, we have to be careful because we also have to be conscious that even with extreme measures, you could actually end up having some players testing positive. You don’t need players and people hugging each other for someone to test positive. So we’re all running the risk.”
The positive tests on the Adria Tour could help make subsequent events safer, Gaudenzi said, by making players more willing to stay in the restricted environment imposed to reduce the risk of infection.
“It’s a little bit like when you tell your kids when they try to learn to ride the bike to wear the helmet,” Gaudenzi said. “It’s ‘no, no, no’. And they ride the bike, they fall, and then they wear the helmet. Now we all know we can get this very easily, so we’re going to be even more careful, and maybe we will have a little bit more tolerance toward the bubble.”
It is also a reminder to event organizers — like Bob Moran, the tournament director of the Credit One Bank Invitational, a six-day women’s team exhibition in Charleston, S.C. — of the importance of safety measures. The participants in the event, which is set to begin without spectators on Tuesday, include Sofia Kenin, this year’s Australian Open champion, and Sloane Stephens, a former U.S. Open champion. According to Moran, players have been practicing social distancing and wearing masks on site when not training or competing.
Nets and sitting areas are being sanitized after practice sessions.
“Honestly, I think it’s two different animals,” Moran said of his event and the Adria Tour. He added: “The players who have tested positive are all players these women know and have spent time with. It’s very unfortunate. I hate to see this happen and hate to see it happen now, but it’s just again re-emphasizing why we’re taking all the precautions we are taking.”