In this week's Rally, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor discuss the devastating downfall of the Adria Tour, and where Novak Djokovic goes from here, on the day when the world No. 1 would have begun his title defense at Wimbledon.
Monday, June 29 was originally meant to be the first day of Wimbledon. That’s also the day when the reigning men’s champion enters Centre Court to begin his title defense. This is one of the more harmonizing rituals in tennis, the kind of delicate, understated moment that makes Wimbledon so distinct and delicious. There’s a pleasing circularity to it all, the recent winner connected with the lengthy past, time elegantly looped back to the present, and that first skirmish of what the British also call The Championships. No doubt, Djokovic looked forward to making that grand entrance for the fifth time.
But this year, Djokovic is in the middle of a whole other kind of defense. There will be no walk onto Centre Court, no customary warm applause, no showcase of skill on the sport’s most cherished court. Instead, Djokovic finds himself in the court of public opinion, a buzzing flurry of tweets and posts and stories and conjecture about his motives and messages. It’s one thing to try to be a great tennis player. It’s another to try to take on a leadership role, be it as ATP Player Council president or at the helm of the Adria Tour.
There will be lots of dialogue about Djokovic for a long time to come that has nothing to do with his exquisite groundstrokes and exemplary footwork. As he grapples with accountability for recent events, as Djokovic and the ATP seek to sort out various issues about events, prize money and the composition of the ATP, as Djokovic’s prior statements about such topics as vaccines and toxic water hang in the air, as his father issues controversial assertions, the Djokovic legacy becomes increasingly complicated.
It’s quite unusual to see a tennis player so engulfed like this. But our entire planet has slowed down, vividly so in such fast-moving realms as sports. Time, so elegantly captured and celebrated at Wimbledon, has taken on a whole other dimension. Flatten the curve? Try this: Flatten the clock. It is difficult to envision the future, so we find ourselves in a very clear, focused present and performing a great many new rituals—narrow lives indoors, minimal social contact, limited planning, hygienic protocols that involve soap, wipes and masks. One wonders how all of that constraint has fueled Djokovic’s thoughts and actions these last few months.
As far as Wimbledon goes, the tournament’s attention to ritual and devotion to our sport’s rich traditions and greats also leads to this message: no one is bigger than the game. At Wimbledon, tennis itself is the transcendent figure.
Steve, as we contemplate the pandemic and Djokovic’s actions and statements, how do you think his concept of self and significance has played out, both throughout his career and also most recently?
What a difference a year has made for Djokovic. From the dizzying heights of his win over Federer at Wimbledon in 2019 to the awful depths of the Adria Tour in 2020.
You ask how the Serb’s “concept of self and significance has played out.” It’s a good question and one I’ve been thinking about over the last week. Is there something in Djokovic’s personality that led him to this low moment, the same way it took him to the heights at Wimbledon last year?
Let me start by asking: What’s the connection between Djokovic’s recent controversial comments—about vaccinations, about changing water molecules with the mind, about the US Open’s “extreme” restrictions—and the fact that he and others ended up with the coronavirus in Croatia?
At one level, the link is obvious. Here’s a guy who doesn’t believe in conventional medical practices, who stages an event with none of the usual COVID-related restrictions, who leads an indoor dance party with his fellow players—and who ends up being at least partly responsible for a raft of new infections. What could be more predictable?
But did Djokovic really believe he could ward off the virus with his “positive emotions,” the way some have suggested? Maybe he imagined that his own, carefully tended immune system would help him, but I doubt he thought that his friends, family, fellow players, and countrymen could all rise above COVID on their own. It’s true that his recent comments about vaccinations and the power of positive thinking were jarring, but I don’t think he’s that far gone.
What happened at the Adria Tour reminded me of what has been happening in the U.S. over the last week. In March, Serbia set up a strict coronavirus quarantine; there was a 12-hour curfew and people over 65 weren’t allowed outside. The virus receded—as of today, the country has 264 COVID deaths—and the quarantine was eased. By the time Djokovic and the tour organizers started planning their exhibition, they probably looked around and saw little to no social distancing in those countries. As Donna Vekic, who was part of the tour, told Chris Clarey of the New York Times, people have been going about their business normally in Serbia and Croatia. Rather than a threat, the Adria Tour organizers likely saw an opportunity for a celebration.
In reality, as we’ve also learned in the States, it’s the restrictions themselves—social distancing, testing, creating COVID-free bubbles—that keep the virus at bay. The Adria organizers didn’t look beyond their own borders, and they didn’t create a bubble where someone like Grigor Dimitrov, who was the first player to learn he was infected, would automatically be tested when he tried to re-enter it.
Like the governors of Texas and Florida who reopened too soon, Djokovic bears responsibility, and if ATP players no longer want him to be the president of their player council, I’m not going to argue with them. But I also feel bad for him. I feel bad because he and his wife and friends have the virus. And I feel bad because, as I wrote in a column last week, he was so happy and proud to showcase his hometown of Belgrade to the tennis world and to his fellow pros.
That’s where I think his personality comes in. Djokovic is often criticized for “wanting to be loved too much” by fans, and trying too hard to win their approval. In this case, he wanted his home to be loved, and he wanted Belgrade to bring tennis back the way everyone knew and loved it, with fans and ball kids and handshakes and hugs. In trying to make that happen, he pushed the safety envelope too far.
Can you, like me, summon up some sympathy for Djokovic, Joel? And how do you relate his personality with what happened this past weekend?
Tennis Channel's Jon Wertheim and Paul Annacone react to Djokovic's positive test:
Unquestionably, part of me feels sympathy for Djokovic. Surely, he had no intention of anyone getting sick. And over the years, Djokovic has used his platform and wealth to aid others, both in his homeland and beyond.
And yet, for all the goodwill Djokovic has demonstrated, the pattern you laid out, of comments about vaccines and water and emotions, add up to the portrait of an individual with his own distinct ideas about the ability to transcend illness. Let’s remember how early in his career, Djokovic had a number of health-related issues. Over the last decade, he’s completely turned that around and become one of the most incredibly fit athletes in all of sports.
In normal times, Djokovic’s health-related statements would come off as peripheral commentary from an athlete. To me, at least 51 percent of my evaluation of a player is based on what he or she does inside the lines. As I once said to a colleague who lamented that a particular champion was boring in press conferences, “Do you want to listen to William F. Buckley or study an athlete?” So in normal times, as one match after another rolls by, as the player circles the globe, those various comments either dissolve or, at most, tag along like ornaments on a windshield.
But we now occupy perilous times. On the health front, we are all connected to one another in ways new, powerful, dangerous and uncertain—emphasis on connected.
And here we enter the heart and soul of the tennis player DNA. One of my favorite comments ever about tennis came from John Lucas, a man who was an All-American in tennis and basketball at the University of Maryland (he was even better at the latter, playing 14 seasons in the NBA and also becoming a coach).
When I asked Lucas which sport was harder, he cited tennis. In tennis, Lucas noted, you’ve got to take every shot, play every minute. You can’t pass, or let someone else take that shot, or take yourself out of the game. You’re responsible for everything, the whole time.
Darn appealing: destiny in your hands. But play this out to how it might affect your view of life. Imagine yourself accumulating wins and strength and strength and wins, a relentless snowball of confidence, faith, belief. Imagine knowing that three times at Grand Slam events you have beaten Roger Federer from match point down—including double-championship point at Wimbledon. Imagine that you’ve also had to overcome Rafael Nadal, arguably the greatest competitor in tennis history. Imagine recalling that as a child, you scheduled practice time based on educated guesses about which parts of your town were more likely to be bombed than others.
As Howard Cosell used to say, there you have it. Call it the inner resolve of Novak Djokovic. Isn’t this what we love in our athletes: their over-the-top confidence and unshakeable refusal to lose? Wasn’t that the downright visceral allure of this spring’s ten-part documentary on Michael Jordan? Don’t call it “The Last Dance.” Call it “The Only Dance,” the raw, singular performance dimension that so attracts us to sports.
And so, Djokovic brought the DNA of a champion to what he hoped would prove a successful event—all that belief, that confidence that makes an athlete so charismatic.
But, unlike Jordan, Djokovic has mastered an individual sport. And, as Lucas also told me, that too makes a crucial difference. For as much as Lucas praised tennis, he also pointed out that basketball might make you a better person, because you learn to work with people.
Even Jordan needed to listen to Phil Jackson and pass the ball. As Jordan himself explained in The Last Dance, at certain times when he passed, the chances of winning greatly increased.
So this is where I have the most sympathy for Djokovic—in his solitude. There will be those who offer him care. Others will offer counsel. Perhaps even a few will compel accountability. But whom will he believe?
Steve, how do you think Djokovic will conduct himself in the weeks and months to come? And, once the tennis resumes at such events as the US Open and Roland Garros, how then do you think his health-related statements will play out?
It will be interesting to see how Djokovic reintegrates himself into the tour whenever it returns. First, let’s hope he and Jelena recover well, and that there aren’t any long-term effects on their health or careers.
Assuming that he does get better, it may be fortunate for him that the tour won’t return for another month and a half at the earliest, and he may not return to it for longer. As you say, when it comes to sports, what happens on the court usually ends up overshadowing what happens off it. We can only hope that’s the case here, and that there isn’t worse news to come from the Adria Tour.
The bigger question will be whether Djokovic starts to rethink and walk back some of his wilder wellness claims, and gets on board with modern medicine. At the very least, I hope he stops promoting expensive herbal remedies on Instagram, and talks to some knowledgeable people about the safety and necessity of vaccines. He can think for himself about his body and his health without putting other people at risk.
Whether or not he continues as president of the ATP player council, Djokovic will likely have to work to regain the trust of his fellow players. As for fans, it’s harder to say. I’ve always thought that at some point, there would come a moment when the tennis world finally warmed to Djokovic. Now that moment seems less likely to happen in the near future.
I still think there’s a lot to like and admire about Djokovic as a player and a person. For now I can only hope that after the Adria Tour and its aftermath, he’ll smooth out some of the rougher and more jarring edges that have kept fans from fully embracing him.