With the US Open confirming they will be going ahead despite coronavirus concerns, all eyes will be on Novak Djokovic and his response, writes Kevin Palmer.
As the green light was given for the US Open to go ahead at Flushing Meadows on schedule at the end of August, world No.1 Novak Djokovic was plunged into public relations battle he dare not lose.
After weeks of a debate that has long since been political on several levels, New York governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed he has approved a plan by the USTA to stage the tournament behind closed doors on it’s planned start date of August 31st.
A move to switch the Cincinnati Masters event to New York and have a month of tennis in the Big Apple will now swing into gear, with Cuomo suggesting tennis fans and, more significantly, the sport’s biggest stars should be toast the return to Grand Slam tennis following the cancellation of Wimbledon for the first time since the Second World War.
“We’re excited about the U.S. Open,” declared Cuomo. “It will be held without fans, but you can watch it on TV — and I’ll take that. The tennis authorities are going to be taking extraordinary precautions, but that’s going to take place.”
While tennis fans will rejoice at the prospect of live action returning to our screens, eyes will now fall on Djokovic’s next move, after a weekend that saw him stage a major tennis event in his Serbian homeland that was followed by a raucous celebratory party that instantly became a hit on social media channels.
With Djokovic’s homeland declaring they have had just 256 deaths from the virus compared to a horrifying total in excess of 118,000 in America, the scars left by Covid-19 are clearly very different in the two nations and yet the world No.1’s reservations over travelling to New York do not appear to be based on health concerns.
Instead, he has been promoting a somewhat elitist agenda that has seen him threaten to sidestep the event as he will not be allowed to travel with his sizeable entourage that includes his coaching team of Goran Ivanisevic and Marian Vajda, as well as fitness and nutritional experts Djokovic views as essential to his participation.
In addition, Novak appears to be repulsed by the prospect of staying in an ‘out of town’ hotel alongside a host of other players in what will be a ‘controlled bubble’ to protect all involved in the organisation of the US Open from the ongoing threat of the coronavirus.
Anyone who has witnessed the levels of meticulous preparation Djokovic puts into his each and every training sessions will confirm this is a sportsman who leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to find perfection and that side of his complaint may be accepted by onlookers, yet the idea that he would skip the event because he cannot have the five-star luxury accommodation he demands will not be so well received.
“I guess people have something against it right away when you’re honest,” declares Ivanisevic, as he defended his pupil. “As for the US Open, Novak expresses his opinion. He did not tell anyone not to play, if you ask (Dominic) Thiem or (Alex) Zverev and they have extreme conditions. He always puts those on-duty critics ‘in his pocket’.”
Ivanisevic’s comments were delivered when the US Open was still a possible event on the 2020 tennis calendar, but now this problem has become very real for the game’s top players.
The always outspoken Nick Kyrgios has joined Djokovic in expressing doubters over whether the US Open should take place while racism protests add to the confusing concoction in New York, yet this has to be a time for all in the sport to find a way to overcome the huge hurdles blocking a path to progress.
It will be impossible for a country that has been badly impacted by the pandemic to stage a sporting event in the next few months in perfect and ‘normal’ conditions and as this may be the best we can get for tennis in this miserable year, our sport cannot be left behind as so many of their competitors for airtime and sponsorship get back into gear.
With many of Europe’s top football leagues getting now being played behind-closed-doors, international cricket and Formula One racing set to resume in July and golf’s PGA Tour already underway, Djokovic, Nadal and the standard-bearers of tennis need to send out a clear message to keep their sport alive amid the biggest crisis it has faced in a generation.
If they don’t want to travel to New York for the US Open due to fears for their own health, no one would criticise them for their stance.
However, if their reason for refusing to play was based on reservations over the quality of a hotel mini-bar of the absence of a travelling masseur, tennis fans may not be so forgiving.
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