By Richard Pagliaro
The Happy Slam has wreaked walking wounded.
The ATP must respond by creating a single-site safety bubble to protect players’ health says Novak Djokovic.
The world No. 1 says mounting men’s injuries at this Australian Open highlights a major danger: players are more vulnerable to pain, suffering and injury after serving 14-day quarantines.
Djokovic asserts tennis must consider creating an NBA-style bubble to play multiple tournaments and reduce injury risk because “the majority of the players just don’t want to go ahead with the season if we are going to have to quarantine most of the tournaments.”
Former ATP Player Council President Djokovic, who founded the PTPA players union, says many players tell him they won’t endure 14-day quarantines, risk contracting Coronavirus and endure extended time away from family at lower-level ATP events because it’s not financially feasible.
Djokovic said he’s reached out to current ATP Council members for answers on exactly how the Tour will proceed to ensure players’ health and safety after the Australian Open ends on Sunday.
“I’m waiting for some answers. I want to understand how our continuation of the season post-Australia is going to look like, because this definitely is not good for players in terms of their well-being,” Djokovic said. “I mean, Grand Slam is a Grand Slam. If you want to talk about financial aspects, obviously here we are getting the prize money that we are usually getting.
“So obviously I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why a lot of players just came and said, Okay, we’ll accept 14 days’ quarantine.
“But that’s not going to be the case on the ATP events, especially 250, 500. It’s huge prize money reductions. So for the lower-ranked players, I have heard a lot of complaints. Challenger players, a lot of complaints. Yeah.”
The top-seeded Djokovic defeated Alexander Zverev 6-7(6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6(8) victory surging into his ninth Australian Open semifinal after a dramatic three hour, 30-minute duel that saw both men play with abdominal injuries.
Afterward, Zverev agreed with Djokovic asserting “we can’t have a traveling circuit right now” given growing injury count.
“Yeah, I do agree that we can’t have a traveling circuit right now. It’s just as simple as that,” Zverev said. “Injuries will keep on happening. You know, there is restrictions to countries. Depends on what passport you have. You might not even be able to go to some of the countries.
“ I know South American players will be struggling a lot. We can’t have a traveling circuit right now. I think what the ATP should do and should look into is, you know, maybe having a venue like here and play multiple weeks at one place. Multiple tournaments, multiple weeks.
“Because at the end of the day in Europe right now we can’t have spectators anyways, so what difference does it really make where we play the tournament? We can change the background, we can change the, you know, city name on the court or whatever, and then play it at one venue.”
Eight-time Australian Open champion Djokovic suffered an abdominal injury in his five-set win over American Taylor Fritz in round three. Djokovic has played through the pain with the help of treatment and pain-killers posting successive four-set victories over 14th-seeded Milos Raonic and sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev to reach his ninth AO semifinal.
The Serbian superstar is one of several seeds who have been slowed or stopped by injury issues.
No. 9-seeded Matteo Berrettini suffered an abdominal strain in his triple tiebreak third-round win over Karen Khachanov. That injury forced the former US Open semifinalist to concede a walkover to concede a walkover to Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Second-ranked Rafael Nadal sustained a back injury that knocked him out of the ATP Cup played as the lead-in to the AO at Melbourne Park. Nadal said the injury forced him to adjust his service motion a bit in his early-round wins, but he’s feeling better and serving with authority.
Former ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov suffered back spasms after his fourth-round sweep of US Open champion Dominic Thiem. Dimitrov said he struggled to put on his socks prior to his quarterfinal loss to 114th-ranked Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev.
“What we are seeing is not normal. It’s not something we are used to,” Djokovic said. “Top players are the ones that are fittest. It has been proven in the past that that’s the case. Now you have Berrettini, even Rafa coming in with a back injury, myself, Sascha, as well, struggled, Dimitrov.
“I mean, obviously it has something to do with these kind of circumstances that we were in. I mean, coming into a Grand Slam and a tournament before the Grand Slam just right after 14 days’, 15 days’ quarantine. I mean, for some guys it was even tougher than it was for me and maybe some of the other top guys, I mean, for sure. I can’t complain comparing to some of the players that couldn’t exit their room for 14 days.”
The 17-time Grand Slam champion says it’s not about pointing fingers, it’s about finding solutions. Djokovic says he supports discussions about creating an NBA-style safety bubble and play multiple tournaments in succession over several weeks to ensure player safety.
Last year, both the NBA, in Orlando, Florida, and World TeamTennis, at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, successfully completed seasons in their respective bubbles.
“I’m speaking what is going on, speaking the truth, am speaking the reality, and we have to talk about it. We have to find a way, you know, whether it’s something like an NBA bubble, because I heard some players talk about that, and I don’t mind to discuss about that kind of idea,” Djokovic said. “Select one place and we play all the tournaments on that surface and that place. You know, three, four weeks in, three, four, two, three weeks’ rest, then back again. Something like that…
“But we just have to discuss options, because I don’t know honestly if this is going to work. I mean, we are in Australia and we are in lockdown now for five days, but obviously, hopefully in few days’ time we are going to see the crowd back on the stadiums. And we also have to be realistic that what we are experiencing here in Australia is far better than what most of Europe is going through in terms of restrictions and rules and regulations and quarantines, et cetera.”
Among the challenges players face is disparate quarantine regulations in different countries and restrictions on the number of team members players can bring to tournaments. Consequently, players must sometimes choose between traveling with their physio or their coach. Players with families may be more reluctant to travel depending on their ranking and circumstance.
Twenty-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer reportedly opted against playing the AO primarily because he didn’t want to spend potentially up to five weeks away from wife Mirka and the couple’s two sets of twins.
“ATP came up with this rule of player plus two only. So if you have family, you can’t take family on the road,” Djokovic said. “Regardless of the fact where you are playing, whether in that specific country you have better conditions maybe than in some other country, you still are obliged to take only two people with you.
“So we are basically going to be in a bubble every tournament all year regardless where we are. Which is you know, fine if there is no quarantine, but I have been hearing that there are some countries that don’t want to accept people coming in from some specific countries because of the virus strains, different virus strains, so forth, and transmission, and God knows what.
“I don’t know how we’re gonna handle with that, honestly. But we have to address this very quickly, I mean, because season already started. The physical well-being of players is a big question mark and I think it needs addressing.”
Photo credit: Rolex Paris Masters Facebook