Negotiations and trans-Atlantic flight complete, Novak Djokovic was seated on the sofa of one of his hard-won concessions this week: a spacious rented home near New York City, nestled amid the trees and far from the commotion.
Djokovic had just put on a shirt after sunbathing on the terrace.
“With the trees and serenity, being in this kind of environment is a blessing,” Djokovic said on a Zoom call. “And I’m grateful, because I’ve seen the hotel where the majority of players are staying. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything like that, and I know the U.S.T.A. did their best in order to provide accommodation and organize everything and organize these bubbles so the players can actually compete and come here, but it’s tough for most of the players, not being able to open their window and being in a hotel in a small room.”
It has been a bumpy and tortuous road to staging the United States Open amid the coronavirus pandemic. Djokovic’s demands and complaints — public and private — did not make it any smoother for the United States Tennis Association to facilitate the tournament. But unlike many other leading international players, including Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Djokovic is actually here after this long and unexpected break from the tennis tour.
He is still ranked No. 1 and remains a perfect 18-0 in 2020, just as he was when the pandemic-related hiatus began in March.
But he was hardly a big winner during the forced off-season. He generated concern and controversy by questioning vaccination and claiming that water could be affected by human emotions. And he dented his credibility and brand by organizing the Adria Tour, a charity exhibition series in Serbia and Croatia in June that seriously lacked in social distancing and decorum, leading to a cluster of coronavirus cases. It was canceled before the finish with several leading players and some support staff testing positive.
Djokovic and his wife Jelena were among them, and they isolated for two weeks with their two young children in their native city of Belgrade, Serbia.
“We tried to do something with the right intentions,” Djokovic said of the tour. “Yes, there were some steps that could have been done differently, of course, but am I going to be then forever blamed for doing a mistake? I mean, OK, if this is the way, fine, I’ll accept it, because that’s the only thing I can do. Whether it’s fair or not, you tell me, but I know that the intentions were right and correct, and if I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again.”
Djokovic was full of mixed emotions in this week’s interview, ranging from apologetic to defiant, and said he had used the long break to deepen his connections with his family and his understanding of issues like ecology and health.
“I think this is a huge transformational phase for all of us on this planet, and I think maybe even the last wake-up call,” he said.
Djokovic said his coronavirus symptoms were mild, lasting four to five days. He said he had no fever but did have fatigue and some loss of smell and taste and sensed some loss of stamina when he initially returned to practice.
But with concern mounting about the long-term health effects of the virus, Djokovic, who favors a plant-based diet and natural healing when possible, said he was closely monitoring himself and looking into long-term effects.
“I’ve done a CT scan of my chest, and OK, everything is clear. I’ve done several tests since my negative test for the coronavirus as well before coming to New York,” he said. “I’ve done my blood tests, my urine tests, my stool tests, everything that I possibly can. I’m obviously doing that prevention anyway but of course now more than ever because we don’t really know what we’re dealing with.”
Djokovic, traveling without his family, arrived in New York on Saturday, to “get acclimated” to the unusual restrictions for the tournament and “just to be able to be OK once it’s go time.”
He will first play in the Western & Southern Open, a combined men’s and women’s event that has been moved from its usual location outside Cincinnati to the U.S. Open site to create a two-tournament bubble. He will compete in singles and doubles, teaming up with his Serbian compatriot Filip Krajinovic, with his first match either Sunday or Monday.
Both tournaments will be played without spectators at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, with players and their support staff required to be tested regularly and banned from traveling beyond their lodging and the tournament site without express permission from U.S. Open leadership.
“I was very close to not coming,” said Djokovic, who said he decided to go to New York less than a week before he arrived and only after players were given guarantees by European governments that they would not be expected to quarantine when they traveled to Europe after the U.S. Open.
“There were a lot of uncertainties,” he said. “And there still are, yeah, a lot of things that are not really clear.”
He continued: “I want to play. I mean that’s why I’m here. I am personally not afraid of being in a risky, dangerous health situation for myself. If I felt that way, I most likely would not be here. I am cautious of course, and I have to be responsible and of course respect the regulations and rules and restrictions as anybody else. But things are unpredictable. Anything can happen in the tennis court or off the tennis court.”
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Djokovic said his own experience with the coronavirus had not altered his views on vaccines. He has said that he would have a difficult decision to make if receiving a coronavirus vaccine became mandatory to compete on the tennis circuit.
“I see that the international media has taken that out of context a little bit, saying that I am completely against vaccines of any kind,” he said. “My issue here with vaccines is if someone is forcing me to put something in my body. That I don’t want. For me that’s unacceptable. I am not against vaccination of any kind, because who am I to speak about vaccines when there are people that have been in the field of medicine and saving lives around the world? I’m sure that there are vaccines that have little side effects that have helped people and helped stop the spread of some infections around the world.”
But Djokovic did express concern about potential issues with a coronavirus vaccine.
“How are we expecting that to solve our problem when this coronavirus is mutating regularly from what I understand?” he said.
Djokovic said the U.S.T.A.’s leadership was initially reluctant to allow players to stay in rented homes during the U.S. Open. They relented but imposed strict conditions. Djokovic must pay not only the rent but also for round-the-clock security approved and monitored by the U.S.T.A, in part to help enforce the same protocols other players are following.
This is not simply the honor system.
“It’s super important I made this investment because it’s going to make me feel better,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to recover better and can actually have some outdoor time when I’m not on site.”
He has come with the maximum three team members, another concession he worked to secure from the U.S.T.A., which originally planned to restrict players to just one team member. One of Djokovic’s housemates is Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion who is one of his coaches and also contracted the coronavirus during the Adria Tour, along with other players and coaches.
To those watching from afar, that outcome seemed logical in light of the lack of safety measures. Fans were allowed in stadiums. Masks were recommended but not required. Players hugged, high-fived and even danced the limbo in close quarters in a Belgrade nightclub.
“I agree things could have been done differently with the nightclub,” Djokovic said. “The sponsors organized. They invited players. We felt comfortable. We had a successful event. Everybody was really happy and joyful.”
Djokovic said the tour, conceived with the idea of helping lower-ranked pro players in the former Yugoslavia during the hiatus, was organized in cooperation with national governments and tennis federations. At the time, coronavirus numbers were low in Serbia and Croatia with few societal restrictions.
“We’ve done everything they asked us to do, and we followed the rules from the Day 1,” Djokovic said.
But Djokovic said he soon grasped that the view from abroad was very different.
“When someone from Australia or America looks at what was happening in Serbia, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I mean are you crazy? What are these people doing?’” Djokovic said. “So I really understand.”
There was also criticism in Croatia of the tour and the Croatian tennis federation’s role in managing the event. But Djokovic, who also made sizable donations with his wife to coronavirus relief efforts in Serbia and Italy, maintains the tour was still worth organizing for the funds it generated for the region.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything bad to be honest,” he said. “I do feel sorry for people that were infected. Do I feel guilty for anybody that was infected from that point onward in Serbia, Croatia and the region? Of course not. It’s like a witch hunt, to be honest. How can you blame one individual for everything?”
Djokovic is 33, but this will be the first of the 61 Grand Slam tournaments he has played in his long and triumphant career in which his biggest rivals — Nadal and Federer — will both be absent.
Nadal, 34, the reigning U.S. Open men’s champion, chose to prioritize the clay-court season that will closely follow the U.S. Open on the reconfigured tennis calendar. Federer, 39, does not plan to play again in 2020 after two knee surgeries this year.
In New York, the rightly named Big Three will be reduced to one.
“It is strange, because these two guys are the legends of our sport and with or without crowds, they are going to be missed a lot,” Djokovic said.
But he insisted that their absence and the absence of eight other players in the men’s top 100, including the 2016 U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka, did not diminish the significance of this tournament in his opinion because “a super majority” of top players will be there.
Federer holds the men’s record with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal has 19. Djokovic has 17, and he said the quest for 18 was “of course” a significant factor in his decision to cross the Atlantic.
“One of the reasons why I keep on playing professional tennis on this level is because I want to reach more heights in the tennis world,” he said.
He said Federer’s Grand Slam record and men’s record of 310 weeks at No. 1 remained among his primary targets. Djokovic is at 282 weeks and he could surpass Federer by March.
Djokovic said he feels ready after the longest break of his career, but he doesn’t know for certain. And he would have welcomed discussion about playing best-of-three sets at the U.S. Open instead of the usual best-of-five.
“Maybe in the future we should have that conversation. Because these kind of circumstances are very unusual,” he said.
His presence, however difficult to secure, is a major boost for both tournaments in New York. He has won three U.S. Opens and five of the last seven Grand Slam singles titles. The absence of the entire Big Three would have sent the asterisk debate into overdrive.
“I cannot say it’s the main reason why I’m here, but it’s one of the reasons,” he said. “First of all, I have to think about myself and my health and my fitness and whether my team is OK to be here. Once that was checked, then I of course also felt responsible as a top player to be here. It’s important for our sport to keep going.”