What We Can Learn From Novak Djokovic and the Adria Tour Antics

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On this week's Beyond the Baseline podcast, host Jon Wertheim talks with Jamie Lisanti about Novak Djokovic and his Adria Tour, an exhibition series that was scheduled to be played in Croatia and Serbia over four weeks. After Djokovic and other players tested positive for coronavirus and the event was shut down, Wertheim and Lisanti discuss Djokovic's decision-making in the process of organizing the event; the impact of the players' actions and positive tests on tennis as a whole and upcoming tournaments, such as the U.S. Open; and much more.

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jamie Lisanti: When you look at the photos and the way that this event was put on, it really seems like there was a lot of common sense missing and a lot of deliberate disregard for the common things that we know about this virus and what it can do.

Jon Wertheim: I think the words are important and I think you're absolutely right that deliberate is what it was. People even said, Look, are you sure you want to be doing this? And Djokovic sort of said, listen, I'm just following national protocol. Well, now we know that's not necessarily true. I mean, if you go on various websites and look at Serbia's protocol, they still talk about masks. They still talk about social distancing. But there really was this element of self-harm. And this wasn't just negligence and oversight. This seemed like a conscious—I think it was Ben Rothenberg who said, this is a conscious "F you" to anyone practicing these protocols.

Djokovic is coming in for a lot of heat, I think that's completely appropriate. I think there is something really interesting here about the elite athlete, about someone who at some level you have to suspend conventional wisdom to do what he does. At some level, you or your down match points in a Wimbledon final and you have to hear the crowd saying your name and not Roger Federer's name. I think this fits into a bigger piece about the mindset of an athlete and I just think that at some level, he didn't connect the dots. He just didn't think that science applied. Has has challenged conventional wisdom. He has challenge science. There's probably something at some level that is healthy and admirable about that. But that has bled into a complete disregard of the physical world to the point where it never dawned on someone that: A. Even if you are unlikely to be seriously affected by this virus, others that you were in contact with are and B. All of these stories about how this is spread—I mean, you see them topless indoors and shouting and that's almost sort of the playbook for how to get this thing, short of licking subway poles. It's really, I think, just striking and revealing.

JL: You talk about Djokovic and his mindset. He has this alternate view of things, as you said. Maybe he his diet is different and the way approaches his training and the way he lives his life is different than others, which is fine. But he did not put this tournament on by himself. He did not do everything. He organized it and he invited these players. But there are other people involved here that, should also be taking some of the blame for not challenging him. I totally agree with you, I think part of what makes him so great is the things that he does that no one else can, and that's physical, but that's also mental. All of these things really do make an elite athlete great. And Djokovic has clearly shown that. But there are other people surrounding him that need to show him an alternate view, or at least in this case, present the glaring red flag issues that are there right in front of us. And I just think that somebody along the way, for whatever reason, didn't say something or didn't challenge some of this.

I think what Djokovic said at one point was that, We miss our work and we're going to enjoy this. Everyone misses the normalcy that we had before this time. But that doesn't give anyone the right to put not only yourself, but others in danger.

JW: One thing I was struck by, too, was that Djokovic was a player that was really took issue with the U.S. Open limiting the size of this this membrane, this entourage, this bubble. And what you realize is this guy is really insulated. And one thing that struck me was it was a real insight into just how sort of surrounded by support he is and the fact that there was nobody on the inside who would have tapped him on the shoulder and said, You know what? Maybe not a great idea here. Or, you know what, Novak? Maybe you don't want to be playing shirts and skins basketball. Or maybe it's a little bit early to start going to the clubs. The notion that nobody in his camp said, Hey, listen, this is really something you ought not to do. I think that showed—not just Djokovic—but in general, it shows how much celebrities can be cosseted by the people around them. I mean, it just it just blows my mind that nobody within his camp could have gotten through to him to tap him on the shoulder. I thought that was a real revelation.