Tennis’ new look: Djokovic’s charity event turns into an unmitigated disaster as ATP Tour gears up for a return to action

As tennis begins to awaken from its slumber the question on the lips of many is just how exactly will the sport look when it returns? Alex Grant reports.

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Photo Credit: AFP

Tennis much like every other sport has experienced a hibernation over recent months as the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has shut down sport worldwide, but with sport now beginning to return to a ‘new normal’ tennis bosses have also began planning for what is sure to be a very different future.

The plan at present is for top-level tennis to return on August 14 at the Citi Open 500 event in Washington D.C. The Cincinnati Masters will then follow a week later on August 22 before the now second grand slam of the season at the US Open in New York City on August 31.

Players will then be expected to quickly switch from the US hard courts to the European clay courts with the Madrid Masters on September 13, the Rome Masters on September 20 culminating in the rearranged French Open on 27 September.

The ATP insists that all these events will be held under strict health and safety guidelines including social distancing and reduced/no-fans on site.

Following the cancellation in March of the opening Masters 1000 events of the season in Indian Wells and Miami, it was announced that tennis had been suspended across all levels until April 20 with the suspension soon extended to June 7 then July 13.

But as tournament after tournament fell foul to the pandemic, including Wimbledon, which was cancelled for the first time since World War Two, many wondered whether tennis would be able to return before the end of the calendar year. However, as countries across the globe begin to slowly and cautiously reopen their doors, tennis has put a schedule in place for a return to action.

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Wimbledon was one of sport’s most notable events to be cancelled due to Coronavirus

The hectic nature of the revised schedule has been called into question, however, with concerns regarding increased travel and player health, following an extended break from competition, having both been raised.

Among those critical are the two top ranked male players Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, as well as women’s world number two Simona Halep. Djokovic has called the proposed changes, including the possibility of players only being allowed to bring one other person with them ‘extreme’ whilst Nadal has said as it stands he has little desire to defend his US Open title.

“If you asked me if I want to travel to New York today to play a tennis tournament, I will say no – I will not,” commented Nadal.

“But in a couple of months, I don’t know how the situation is going to improve. I am confident that if the tournament is played, it’s going to be under extremely safe circumstances. If not, in my opinion, it doesn’t make sense.

“We need to understand we are suffering an unprecedented situation and my feeling is we need to come back when all the players, from all the countries of the world, are able to travel under safe circumstances.

Halep has also released a statement explaining that whilst she currently does not ‘plan to play’ her decision is also not ‘set in stone’.

“Given the conditions outlined in the US Open announcement this morning, as of today I do not currently plan to play in NYC,” Halep said. “However, as we know, this situation is fluid and that the conditions may change and improve before the entry deadline in mid-July. I would like to underline that my decision is not set in stone. I have expressed my thoughts to both (U.S. Open tournament director) Stacey Allaster and (WTA CEO) Steve Simon and have explained the personal circumstances around them.”

Elsewhere tennis’ return has been thrown into further doubt after a charity event hosted by world number one Novak Djokovic turned into an unmitigated disaster as a number of players including Djokovic himself later tested positive for Coronavirus.

The event, held across Croatia and Serbia and allowing for crowds of thousands of people to be in attendance, was viewed by many as ill-advised from the outset with the players in attendance. World number three Dominic Thiem and world number seven Sascha Zverev, also in attendance, did not conform to any social distancing measures and instead posed for many photos side-by-side whilst hosting kids’ clinics, as well as playing basketball, football and attending a nightclub together.

The final match of the event was later cancelled following the announcement that world number 19 Grigor Dimitrov had tested positive for Covid-19. This positive result was soon followed by a string of positive tests from fellow attendees including world number 33 Borna Coric and Djokovic’s fellow Serb Viktor Troicki.

But as the players who had been in attendance waited to be tested, Djokovic was nowhere to be seen and instead choose to journey across country lines and head home with, as since learned, Coronavirus in his system.

Nick Kyrgios added his voice to the critics tweeting in response to Coric’s positive result:

“Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition’. Speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”

Former world number one Andy Murray has also expressed his feelings regarding the event with the Scot commenting that it was ‘not a good look’ for tennis.

It is not the first time that Djokovic has caused controversy during lockdown, however, having previously come under criticism for revealing himself as an opposer of vaccinations and being against a Coronavirus vaccine should one be developed. This led to Serbia’s leading epidemiologist warning Djokovic to avoid the topic in future as he had ‘created misconceptions’ and has a ‘huge impact’.

The 17-time grand slam winner and current President of the ATP player council has since all but ignored that request, repeatedly hosting Instagram live session with his gurus, where he openly discussed his beliefs including, amongst others, that positive thoughts could turn polluted water into ‘healing water’.

It is impossible to say whether these beliefs had any impact on Djokovic’s decision to hold his event with seemingly no concern for the virus, but we are certain to hear more from the fallout of tennis’ thus far disastrous return especially as the return date of the professional tour draws ever closer.

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