(Reuters) - Novak Djokovic aimed to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with his charity tournament but with a number of players testing positive for the virus after attending the event, it could imperil the resumption of professional tennis.
The men's world number one was the fourth player to contract the virus after Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, Croatia's Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki previously tested positive after playing in the Adria Tour event in the Balkan region.
The tournament was among many events that have recently been held while professional tennis remains suspended due to the pandemic.
But there was one key difference about Djokovic's event.
While the other tournaments were contested without any fans in attendance and those present adhered to social distancing rules, Djokovic's Adria Tour attracted a capacity crowd in the Serbian capital, where players interacted, embraced and partied like they did in pre-COVID-19 days.
"Djokovic shot himself in the foot by organising the Adria Tour," Radmilo Armenulic, a former Yugoslavia Davis Cup coach, told Reuters by phone.
"The organisation of the Belgrade leg was catastrophic, the stands were so full that fans were virtually sitting on top of each other. He staged this event with the best of intentions but it turns out it was a big mistake."
While the players hugged at the net, played basketball, posed for pictures and attended news conferences together, Djokovic also organised nights out in Belgrade and pictures and videos of him dancing with the players made it to social media.
The players, however, did not break any government protocols in Serbia or Croatia with both countries easing lockdown measures weeks before the event.
But it highlighted the risks of athletes from different countries being in close proximity to one another, which could be a concern for the men's ATP and women's WTA Tour when they resume the professional circuit in August after five months.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has also announced plans for the U.S. Open Grand Slam to be held as scheduled from Aug. 31 in New York and governing bodies are expected to have strict protocols is place.
"We have to be careful because we also have to be conscious that even with extreme measures, you could actually end up having some players testing positive," ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi told the New York Times.
During the U.S. Open, players and guests must wear masks when onsite unless practising or competing and testing will be conducted before travelling to the United States and at least once per week along with daily temperature checks.
Top players, including Djokovic, have in recent times expressed their displeasure at the stringent measures, something that the ATP and the WTA are also expected to incorporate at their tournaments.
Gaudenzi said he hoped players will be more receptive to restrictions following the Adria Tour fiasco.
Stacey Allaster, the new U.S. Open tournament director, said organisers had to take a "leap of faith" regarding players' willingness to follow the protocols.
"If you think about it, we really designed this tournament around a bubble," said Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer for the NCAA.
"If someone becomes infected, that's a possibility, if they go out and they put themselves at a behaviour where their behaviour is risky, they're really taking on a responsibility of saying what I'm doing is not that important to my fellow players."
Armenulic, however, believes it will take the sport at least a year to go back to where it was before the pandemic and professional circuit should not resume before next year's Australian Open.
"Unfortunately, this virus is still present, and it is a new reality that we are still learning to cope and live with," Djokovic, a 17-times Grand Slam singles champion, said.
"I am hoping things will ease with time so we can all resume lives the way they were.
"I am so deeply sorry our tournament has caused harm. We were wrong and it was too soon."
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Munbai; additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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