Novak Djokovic goes from aiding lower ranked players to endangering countless in miserably quick fall as role model

Djokovic is not being berated for failing to live up to the lofty expectations that come with the territory of being an all-time great; he is being slammed because he behaved like a stupid, selfish jerk.

Musab Abid June 24, 2020 09:53:48 IST
Novak Djokovic goes from aiding lower ranked players to endangering countless in miserably quick fall as role model

For fans of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic dominating the tour over the last decade has been something akin to torture. So sick have rival fans become of the sight of Djokovic lifting trophy after trophy, that they have often resorted to praying for tennis to be ‘saved’ from his clutches.

Who would’ve thought the misplaced cries of envy by frustrated fans would actually foreshadow the current state of the World No. 1? Tennis actually needs to be saved from Djokovic right now. Wait, scratch that; humanity needs to be saved from Djokovic right now.

Novak Djokovic goes from aiding lower ranked players to endangering countless in miserably quick fall as role model

Serbia's Novak Djokovic (C) poses with volunteers and players after the Adria Tour charity tournament in Belgrade, Serbia. AP

If you think that’s exaggeration, consider the facts. Over the last couple of weeks Djokovic conducted a tennis tournament so lacking in basic COVID-19 safety measures that you could have mistaken it for Coachella. Fans thronged the stands at the Adria Tour without masks or any visible distancing, journalists attended packed press conferences without fear, and the players themselves had copious amounts of physical contact with each other from start to finish.

There were also reports in local Croatian dailies that the implementation of safety protocols at the venues was suspect. Fans were apparently able to enter the Zadar stadium even without tickets, and the availability of disinfectants was conspicuously insufficient.

When the inevitable did happen – three players testing positive for coronavirus on the second day of the Zadar leg – Djokovic, reportedly, refused to get himself tested because ‘he didn’t feel symptoms’. Instead of self-isolating as recommended by his own tournament’s statement, he crossed borders and traveled to Belgrade, under the pretext of wanting to consult his own doctors.

Djokovic finally took the test on Tuesday and it came out positive (along with his wife’s), which didn’t surprise anyone. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole tragedy of the matter; if you expect one of the sport’s biggest role models to have contracted a disease because of his careless behaviour, that means something is broken somewhere.

It’s not just about Djokovic’s public image any longer though; we have gone past the stage where his actions could be called just PR missteps. The Serb has become something much more serious than an awkward or unpopular celebrity – he has literally become a public health hazard. By traveling from Zadar to Belgrade while being positive, he put scores of people along the way at risk; it was to everyone’s eternal relief that his two young children somehow managed to evade the virus.

How much of a disaster has this lockdown period been for Djokovic? It’s a mark of how low he has fallen that I am afraid of even attempting to answer that; we just don’t know what fresh horror he will come up with next. There has been one massive blunder after another ever since the start of the coronavirus-enforced break, and there’s little to suggest the ghastly series is going to end any time soon.

It had all started so differently though. When the world was just coming to grips with the magnitude of the COVID-19 problem back in March, Djokovic made a terrific statement of intent by donating 1 million euros for relief efforts. He then birthed the idea of a player relief fund to help the lower-ranked pros tide over their financial difficulties during the crisis, and everyone hailed him as the ideal person to be representing the ATP at such a time.

But then the conversations about health and science began, and everything went kaput. First, Djokovic came out as an anti-vaxxer, then he bizarrely claimed that humans can change the molecular structure of water through emotions, and later he was accused of breaking lockdown rules in Spain.

Djokovic’s flip-flopping stance about the US Open also invited plenty of backlash. At first he said the proposed restrictions at Flushing Meadows – with player entourages being limited to one person – were ‘extreme’, and that he could skip the tournament altogether. That prompted the likes of Danielle Collins and Dan Evans to launch full-fledged tirades on how Djokovic was neglecting the needs of the lower-ranked players, and the criticism mounted even further when the Serb failed to show up for an ATP video call (reportedly attended by 400 players) because he was busy with his Adria Tour obligations.

When the US Open ultimately announced a relatively relaxed set of rules for the tournament, Djokovic did an about-turn and declared he was ‘excited’ to return to New York. But that invited a fresh wave of criticism, as Noah Rubin and Mitchell Krueger called him out for looking solely at his own interests.

Whatever Djokovic did, seemed to be turning to ash. His image was being destroyed piece-by-piece, and anything he said to arrest the slide only made matters worse.

It didn’t help that his father Srdjan decided to come up with one of his trademark malicious rants in the middle of an already troublesome period. Srdjan aimed some top-quality vitriol in the direction of Roger Federer, saying that he was only delaying his retirement because he couldn’t accept Djokovic being better than him, and that the Swiss should do ‘more interesting things’ than playing tennis. The comments were in no way the fault of the World No. 1, but it is easy to see how they exacerbated the anti-Djokovic sentiment.

When Djokovic announced that he would be organising the Adria Tour – the proceeds of which would go to charity – everyone hoped there was redemption in store. But right from the moment the first ball was struck in Belgrade, there have been misgivings in the tennis community about the advisability of the entire exercise.

The pictures and videos coming out of both Belgrade and Zadar were concerning at best, and horrifying at worst. As if the football and basketball matches – where the players were seen repeatedly hugging and huddling – weren’t bad enough, Djokovic even spent the evenings hanging out on the streets with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, all social distancing forgotten.

There were also mass interactions with children during Kids’ Day programs, public interviews in crowded marketplaces, and worst of all, a barely believable disco party where the players were seen dancing shirtless. While the video of that party gave us all a laugh – especially when Nick Kyrgios described shirtless Zverev as a ‘blow-up doll at a car dealership’ – it also made us question how the players could even think of going to a crowded pub in the middle of a pandemic.

Everyone except the Serb could see the problems in painful detail. When he was informed of the apprehensions from the fans and the media, Djokovic insisted that the situation in Serbia was ‘really different’ than it was in the ‘West’.

You almost wish someone could crack an actual egg on Djokovic’s face right now, to show the world just how wrong he was in his assessment.

Of course, it goes without saying that Djokovic is not the only one to be blamed for the debacle. Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric should have known better too; they are all full-grown adults, and expecting them to exercise a tiny bit of common sense isn’t expecting a lot. But the gun will remain firmly pointed at Djokovic for the foreseeable future, and with good reason.

He was the one who organised the whole event, and by extension he was the one who led everyone into the fiery pit. As the World No. 1 and ATP Player Council President, Djokovic should have set an example for the rest of the tour; instead, he ended up being a cautionary tale for what not to do when you’re trying to restart tennis.

There are times when we set the bar higher than normal for our idols; we unreasonably expect the world from them in every sphere, and are left disappointed if they fall even a little short anywhere. This is not one of those times. Djokovic is not being berated for failing to live up to the lofty expectations that come with the territory of being an all-time great; he is being slammed because he behaved like a stupid, selfish jerk.

What makes the whole episode especially infuriating is that the problems were so easily avoidable. Just a few strictly enforced precautions at the event could have kept all the fans safe; just a few nights without partying and dancing could have kept the players virus-free. In other words, doing the bare minimum could have prevented the tournament from descending into a bottomless catastrophe. But bare minimum is not what the cool kids do, is it?

The intention behind the Adria Tour may have been ‘pure’ and ‘sincere’, as Djokovic put it in his statement of apology on Tuesday. But how ‘sincere’ were the organisers while implementing safety precautions at the venues? And how ‘pure’ was Djokovic’s refusal to get tested in Croatia?

Novak Djokovic goes from aiding lower ranked players to endangering countless in miserably quick fall as role model

Fans in Belgrade, Serbia didn't follow social distancing norms required. AP

Djokovic has been on a downward spiral for a while, but nobody could have expected the nadir to be as low as what happened at the end of the Zadar leg. By assuming that he didn’t need to get tested because he wasn’t showing symptoms, Djokovic went against one of the most fundamental axioms of the COVID-19 crisis – that asymptomatic people are still carriers of the virus. How many people did he infect before finally quarantining himself in Belgrade? We will never know, but we will always suspect.

When a person with as much access to information as Djokovic behaves the same way as an ill-informed idiot, you can’t help but wonder at just how messed up the world is.

Djokovic’s antics may have also put the resumption of the tennis tour in serious jeopardy. Nobody wants to see a player being struck by the virus while at a tournament, and there have been increasingly vocal calls to cancel the US Open ever since Dimitrov’s positive test. Roland Garros organisers’ plan to host the clay court Grand Slam with fans seems all but destroyed now, and even the exhibition tournaments scheduled behind closed doors over the next couple of months have come under the scanner.

The one silver lining amidst all the gloom is that neither Djokovic nor his wife seems to be in any kind of physical trouble. Both of them will hopefully see through the illness in a couple of weeks, and the World No. 1 should be able to take the court again in around a month. But while the virus will disappear from his body soon, the after-effects of his disgraceful behaviour will linger for a long time.

Djokovic has given irrevocable evidence over the last couple of months that he is not fit to lead the men’s tour – or anything in the world, really. Instead of the composed ambassador that the tennis world needs right now, Djokovic is coming off as a science-denying, shirtless-dancing, gibberish-spewing kook.

If the Serb doesn’t voluntarily resign from the ATP Player Council, the rest of the players will – or at least should – vote him out. He has gone from ideal representative to dangerous pariah in the space of three months; the speed of it all is what is truly astounding.

Djokovic has been a certified champion over the last decade and a half, there’s no denying that. His stroke-making discipline and fighting abilities on the court coupled with his philanthropic efforts off it have deservedly earned him admiration from all corners, and a rightful place in the exalted ‘Big 3’ group of GOAT candidates.

But things have gone pear-shaped in such dramatic fashion lately that it has made us forget everything good he did in the past. It almost seems like he didn’t like being considered a role model, and so tried everything in his power to make people forget that he had the qualities to be one.

Djokovic’s remaining few fans would be hoping that the tennis season gets back as scheduled, so that everyone can marvel at his on-court play again and put all these recent horrors in the past. Unfortunately, however, Djokovic may have endangered even the resumption of the tour with his royal goof-ups. There’s just no winning for him right now.

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