Advantage Wimbledon as Novak Djokovic drags tennis’s name through the mud

Tournament insurance in SW19 has proved savvy but sport’s reputation has taken a hit

Novak Djokovic with the trophy after his Wimbledon victory in 2019. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty

Novak Djokovic with the trophy after his Wimbledon victory in 2019. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty

 

Wimbledon was supposed to start today. Only World Wars cancelled it in the past. Now coronavirus has spoiled yet another summer ritual as familiar as sunburn. A lot of people who don’t know their ball-toss from their deuces will feel its lack. But even in these fraught circumstances Wimbledon, that institute of establishment complacency, still finds itself ahead of the game.

That’s because after the SARS outbreak in 2003, Wimbledon’s blazers decided to fork out about £1.5 million a year in pandemic insurance. Over 17 years that came to nearly £25 million. But Covid-19 has meant a pay-off to the tune of £114 million. Rarely has caution have been rewarded so spectacularly or seemed so prescient.

Wimbledon is still losing out. The world’s most famous tournament reportedly generates around $160 million in media rights, another $150 million in sponsorship and nearly $50 million in ticket sales. It will save shy of $40 million on prizemoney and staff wages. But the tot still makes for a substantial loss of revenue. Compared to most sport’s institutions right now however it’s in clover.

Such compensation takes the sting out of not hosting the tournament for the first time in 75 years. There’s even an extra dollop of cream on top of that strawberry: it facilitated the decisive early move to pull the plug on the 2020 tournament. So Wimbledon has spared itself the turmoil so much of the rest of tennis finds itself embroiled in.

In the past the walls of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club probably overheard tales of the great and the good of its membership having enjoyed good wars. It’s fair to say tennis in general has not had a good pandemic.

Belligerent beast

At elite level the game has always been a more belligerent beast than the clubby stereotype suggests. But that doesn’t prevent it cherishing an image of sober reasonableness. It’s a veneer which has been well and truly stripped away in recent months.

Not having Wimbledon’s get out of jail insurance card the French Open authorities unilaterally decided to move their Slam to September. That was sans consultation with many of the game’s other stakeholders. The new date is shortly after the finish of the US Open and clashes with the Laver Cup between Europe and the rest of the world.

Novak Djokovic in action at Wimbledon in 2019 - the 2020 tournament has been cancelled due to coronavirus. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty
Novak Djokovic in action at Wimbledon in 2019 - the 2020 tournament has been cancelled due to coronavirus. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

There are suggestions, including from the 12-times champion at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal, that having the calendar turned upside down like this means players being forced into choosing to play either the US Open or the French.

Not that many players are desperate to travel to New York in the current health climate. The US Open doesn’t have Wimbledon’s financial safety net either so the tournament will go ahead behind closed doors. Star names such as Serena Williams have said they’re looking forward to it. Others have flung accusations of selfishness at the US Open authorities.

Sport in general has had to feel its way through the unique circumstances presented by the Covid crisis. Elite tennis had already found itself scrambling more than most, to the extent that even Roger Federer’s announcement that he won’t play at all this yea rated as a footnote rather than provoking fretful fears for the future it ordinarily would.

However no other major sport has had to contend with the sort of self-inflicted reputational blow during this time of Covid like the one Novak Djokovic disastrously managed last week.

In the midst of a pandemic, the decision by the world’s No 1 male player and reigning Wimbledon champion to run a charity exhibition tournament in various cities throughout the Balkans was high-handed anyway. But to hold matches in front of crowds without enforcing protocols such as face-masks for social distancing beggars belief.

Pictures of Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev dancing shirtless in a Belgrade nightclub only reinforced an image of pampered athletes living in an exclusive bubble of self-righteous entitlement. That such a fiasco has provoked positive coronavirus tests should surprise no one.

Boneheaded

Criticism has to be tempered by how the Serb and his wife are among those who’ve tested positive. They also include his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, who has however echoed those fighting back against criticism of his man, arguing that everyone’s smart now after the event. But no genius was required to predict the potential outcome to such towering arrogance.

“Boneheaded,” was the verdict of Nick Kyrgios, that petulant Australian man-child whose new role as a voice of reason illustrates just how different these times are. “Not a great look for tennis,” summed up Andy Murray. Even the 1970s star Ile Nastase chimed in with: “When (Djokovic believes) everyone else in the world is crazy and he is smart, this is what happens.”

Novak Djokovic and his coach Goran Ivanisevic have both tested positive for coronavirus. Photograph: Zvonko Kucelin/AP
Novak Djokovic and his coach Goran Ivanisevic have both tested positive for coronavirus. Photograph: Zvonko Kucelin/AP

Djokovic has cultivated an image of himself as being a bit different, combining supposed ‘spirituality’ with being an advocate for the sort of herbal medicine lifestyle choices that come cloaked in liberal dollops of ‘positivity.’ Apparently none of that prevented him swiftly exiting Croatia and getting back to Belgrade to be tested when the positivity first hit the fan last week.

Djokovic’s father even managed to compound things by having the gall to blame Dimitrov for the whole thing on the basis that his was the first positive test result. Sins of decorum by the father can hardly be blamed on the son. But Djokovic Snr has form in shooting his mouth off and in such circumstances it mightn’t impolite to tell the old man to button it.

Those at the helm of the game will hope retrieving the damage of the last few month is a temporary PR glitch. But such a turbulent climate could produce an outcome much more far-reaching, to the extent that tennis may come to define itself in terms of pre and post-Covid perhaps more than any other sport.

As for right now, Wimbledon might be the one sector in the game feeling pleased with itself.

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