“I don’t believe in limits,” Novak Djokovic told U.S. journalist Graham Bensinger last month. “I think limits are only illusions of your ego or your mind.”
The sentiment is hardly a new one for Djokovic. Whenever he’s asked if he can win a calendar-year Grand Slam, or break Roger Federer’s men’s record for major titles, Djokovic repeats the same mantra: “I don’t believe in limits.” The philosophy has served him well on court. Like many tennis players, Djokovic is a big believer in the power of visualization; unlike most players, he rarely fails to turn his visions into reality.
Djokovic’s latest vision was the Adria Tour, a charity exhibition series that was scheduled to be played in four Balkan cities over four weekends. Djokovic saw it as a chance to showcase his home city of Belgrade to the tennis world. The night before the first leg of the tour, he posted a picture of himself arm in arm with two other Adria stars, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, on a Belgrade street. “Grateful to welcome my friends to my city,” a beaming Djokovic wrote. “Feels good to have an opportunity to show them where I come from, the beauty of this place and our people.”
Djokovic and the Adria organizers also saw a chance to do something no one else had tried: To bring tennis back just as we remembered it. Neither Serbia nor Croatia, the first two countries on the Adria Tour, had been hit hard by COVID-19. As Djokovic would later say, he and others involved in staging the event believed the virus had “weakened.” So they played with none of the usual coronavirus restrictions. In Belgrade, fans jammed the seats, players shook hands and hugged, and ball kids fetched towels for them. The sight was thrilling and alarming in equal measure. The fact that Djokovic and his wife and the other players then went dancing—indoors, with no social distancing—was simply alarming.
And that’s when Djokovic came up against a very hard limit, one that he couldn’t visualize his way past. He, his wife, Jelena, and half a dozen other people involved in the Adria Tour—including Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric, and Viktor Troicki and his pregnant wife—have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, the virus is still present,” Djokovic said in a statement on Tuesday, “and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with…I am sorry for each individual case of infection. I hope that it will not complicate anyone’s health situation, and that everyone will be fine.”
Not surprisingly, Djokovic is being pilloried in the press and censured by his fellow players. Barstool Sports called him the “village idiot,” and Nick Kyrgios described the Adria Tour as “boneheaded.” There are rumors that the ATP Player Council may move to oust him as its president. Many will see his infection as a comeuppance, and you can understand why. This spring, Djokovic earned corona-related criticism for (1) wavering on whether he would take a vaccine for it; (2) breaking lockdown rules to practice at a club in Spain; (3) describing the US Open’s original entourage restrictions as “extreme,” and (4) traveling back to Serbia before being tested on Monday.
Djokovic also posted a much-derided Instagram chat with Chervin Jafarieh, a real-estate broker turned wellness entrepreneur who was promoting an expensive herbal treatment called Cymbiotika.
During their talk, Djokovic asserted, among other things, that “Scientists have proven that molecules in the water react to our emotions,” and “Through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, [people] manage to turn the most toxic food or the most polluted water into the most healing water.”
Some will wonder if Djokovic thought he could ward off the virus with positive emotion. But as much as he believes in the power of visualization and the mind, he also knows that tennis requires actual physical preparation, too. Few players have been as meticulous about nutrition and training as Djokovic, who is gluten-free and observes a plant-based diet. It’s hard to believe that someone who is so careful about what he puts in his body could be so cavalier about contracting a virus. And yet he was.
Djokovic didn’t force any of the other players to join the Adria Tour. He wasn’t the only person involved in the decision to stage it without COVID-19 restrictions. And we don’t know how the infections started. But he has earned the criticism he has received, because he was the ringmaster of the show, and because he’s a leader in men’s tennis. Djokovic’s positive test, and those of his wife and fellow players, are a lesson for everyone, not just for the tennis world—about reopening too quickly, about flouting science, about trusting in the wellness movement and power of positive thinking, and, most importantly, about the continuing danger of the coronavirus.
What makes it worse to me is how happy and proud Djokovic was to bring tennis to Belgrade. He beamed when Thiem and Zverev joined him for dinner there, and he cried when the weekend was over and his childhood memories of the city flooded back. Djokovic’s critics say he “wants to be loved”; in this case, he wanted his home to be loved. But it was the wrong time to try to live without limits.