Having described health precautions planned for this year’s US Open as “extreme” and criticized the concept of vaccines, world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic has sparked outrage by hosting a packed tournament in Belgrade.
The outspoken opponent of vaccination campaigns was pictured welcoming players to his Adria Tour competition at the airport, hugging them during an accompanying football match, dancing at a piano in front of thousands of fans who had filled the seats at his tennis club and embracing his rivals in press photos while much of the world continues to observe social distancing.
Few members of the huge audience wore masks as they sat next to each other on the banks of the River Danube to watch top players including Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov and Jelena Jankovic compete in the high-spirited exhibition event.
The surprising scenes were at odds with advice from the vast majority of global health experts on curbing the spread of COVID-19, sparking a row on social media between commentators concerned at Djokovic’s lack of caution and apologists who observed that Serbia’s death rates from the virus are currently low.
Just days earlier, 25,000 fans had been allowed to attend a fiery derby match between leading football teams Partizan and Red Star Belgrade where crowd restrictions were also not encouraged.
“Yes, this is footage from today and not from another planet,” said Stuart Fraser, the tennis correspondent for The Times, observing the action in front of 4,000 ticket buyers.
“Oh to be a fly on the wall at the United States Tennis Association offices now.”
The US Open looks increasingly unlikely to take place as scheduled in late August against a backdrop of the widespread outbreak of the virus and social unrest across the country, with high-profile figures including Australian ace Nick Kyrgios calling tennis bosses “selfish” for pressing ahead with plans to host a restricted tournament earlier this week.
One fan reacted to photos of Djokovic asking fans to observe a minute’s silence in honor of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from the virus worldwide as “no laughing matter.”
“I know piling on Novak seems like a sport at this point, but yikes,” they added.
“The tone-deafness and lack of awareness of it all, not to mention the irony. It’s like a portrait in satire except it’s all real.”
Djokovic defended his seemingly carefree attitude by claiming that the lack of a lockdown in his homeland meant there was no need for precautionary interventions.
“Of course, lives have been lost and that’s horrible to see in the region and worldwide,” he acknowledged.
“But life goes on and we as athletes are looking forward to competing.
“We have different measures in Serbia than the United States or UK. It’s not up to me to make the call on what is right or wrong health-wise. We are following what the government of Serbia is telling us.
“We are doing what the Serbian government is telling us and hopefully we soon will get back on tour collectively.”
In a comment that was retweeted by the President of the German Tennis Federation, tennis journalist Jannik Schneider pointed out: “First there was the handshake and hug that Zverev and Djokovic gave each other after the German landed.
“Then they play football [in close proximity]. It seems like they can and will do what they want. It is a farce in general…regarding [governing bodies trying] to bring the tour and slams back in safe circumstances.”
Fellow tennis writer Nick McCarvel was also shocked.
“Actually can’t believe what I’m seeing,” he admitted.
“Players are calling for safety measures at the US Open and saying they might not play but are okay with full stadiums, a packed, close-quarters kids’ day, hugs, microphone sharing and selfies at an exhibition?”
Zverev joked that he had been persuaded to play at the tournament by a threat from Djokovic that he would never let him win against him otherwise.
Meanwhile, Thiem, who caused controversy by suggesting that he would be reluctant to contribute to a fund for players whose earnings have been curtailed by the suspension of the tennis calendar, said: “I like exploring new countries.
“Serbia wished us a nice welcome – especially Novak, who came to meet us at the airport.”
Djokovic supporters backed the players and spoke of their joy at the return of high-profile professional tennis.
“Djokovic donated a lot of money and equipment to the fight against COVID19 – he even donated to Spain,” said one.
“Serbia has no restrictions anymore because they managed COVID-19 well, so don’t hate – let them live their free lives.”
Another showpiece for Djokovic’s mini-tour, which has been partly organized to raise funds for healthcare efforts, will not take place at the end of June in Montenegro.
Government leaders have canceled the event because they do not consider Serbia to meet the entry criteria set by the country’s health authorities.