Djoković's Coronavirus Infection Bursts Croatia's Pandemic-Free Bubble

By 24 June 2020
Arguably the most notable fist bump of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković's career.
Arguably the most notable fist bump of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković's career. Facebook: Adria Tour

June 24, 2020 — The weeks-long parade of exposed faces and casual disregard for social distancing made the coronavirus’s return to Zadar, in retrospect, seem inevitable. It took the world’s no. 1 tennis player getting infected for anyone to notice the mask of responsibility slipping off.

At the opening press event for the Adria Tour’s Zadar leg, Nikolina Babić, the president of the Croatian Tennis Association, said organizers would “adhere to all measures prescribed by [authorities], with everyone having to think about themselves first, and thus protect others.” Organizers then reportedly symbolically distributed masks to the naked-faced journalists in attendance. 

It was the last time anyone would see masks at an Adria Tour event. Sunshine kissed the face of nearly every attendee at the tour’s various events. The haphazard seating signaled any pretense of “social distancing” vaporized the moment the tennis players arrived — save the lone visage of an elderly man, photographed trying to socially distance while wearing a mask at the event.

The Adria Tour's participants quickly embraced the loose attitude (even before arriving, they enjoyed a night out at a Belgrade night club). 

Social distancing was non-existent at press events and exhibitions. Masks apparently left at home. 

High-fives and selfies all around for locals at packed public press events, as well as mass group pictures and even embracing on the court. 

Even the country’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic took in a match huddled with colleagues and advisors, mask-free and shoulder-to-shoulder.

At its center was the world’ best men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, who has resisted calls for compulsory vaccination against COVID-19 and made overtures to alternative medicine, both of which he’s walking back now that he and his wife have tested positive for the virus.

Nearly 100 people who attended the event went into self-isolation, including Zadar’s Mayor Branko Dukić and County Head Božidar Longin. Both politicians’ brief public interactions with tennis players were during press events — out in the open. The Prime Minister’s own contact with Djokovic would require 14 days of self-isolation, according to rules laid out early in the pandemic by the government’s own Civil Protection Directorate, and enforced with HRK 8,000 fines.

The Prime Minister isn’t self-isolating. And the rules, conveniently, have been run through a semantic sausage maker enough times to lose all meaning, and even mismatch on the government’s own coronavirus website.

Deputy mayor Šime Vicković said in an interview with HRT that hosting the Adria Tour wasn’t a mistake.

"At the time when the decision was made to hold such a tournament, the situation in Croatia was positive in terms of the epidemiological picture and I think we were not wrong. Unfortunately, the fact is that we had one positive person and who made a certain, so to speak, mess now among us in the area of Zadar County.

"I think we did not make a mistake because this was a great success for the city of Zadar and Zadar County," Vickovic said.

Many worry the coming Parliamentary election has politicized the virus and infected a once-upstanding Civil Protection Directorate. But the casual disregard for the precautions started well before Djokovic and company arrived.

In fact, I saw it during my first day out in Zadar after nationwide restrictions began slowly loosening. 

It started, oddly, at a recycling center.


“You got cancer?”


“Some other problems with your lungs?”


I dumped my recyclable plastics into a dumpster, then shifted over to metals. My interrogator followed me.

“Someone in your family sick?”


I tossed some tins and soda cans over the edge of the receptacle. The attendant at the recycling center on the outskirts of Zadar had been orbiting me since I got out of my car. He watched as I dumped the trash bags full of recyclables I accrued during the lockdown.

“You’re a young and healthy guy?”

“Is that a question or are you telling me?”

“I’m just wondering why you have a mask on.”

I turned towards him, squinting in the sun, my chin sweating under my mask. He stared at me as if I were glowing.

“My wife’s pregnant,” I said. “I am not f*cking around. The masks cost me nothing, and it shouldn’t bother you.”

He paused.

“Are you scared?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Then I still don’t understand… why wear a mask?” he asked, the corners of his mouth turning down.

It was late May. Croatia was sweeping away the cobwebs of a pandemic-slowing lockdown. 

The Adriatic coast prepared to save whatever it could of the coming tourism season. Press was good. Hopes were high.

Yet despite the collective isolation and ensuing bad vibes, many of Zadar’s locals relished their newfound freedoms. I could tell by their smiles.

Squirt-bottles of hand sanitizer greeting every customer slowly migrated away from entrances. First to tables, then next to cash registers, before disappearing. Face masks crawled down cashiers’ faces day by day. First exposing a nose, then creating an aqua green papery beard, until finally one day, all pretense of responsibility vanished and the masks disappeared as well.

Walking the streets over the last few weeks, one would be hard-pressed to even know a pandemic was sweeping the planet. Public transportation, especially the ferries, returned to their pre-pandemic bacchanalias. Public mask wearers quickly became the outliers, not the norm. Handshakes came back with a vengeance.

Into this pandemic-era Gomorrah stepped the Adria Tour. Zadar was still at zero active infections at the time. New infections jumped around the rest of the country the before tennis tournament arrived.

During the pandemic’s first swing through Croatia, I’d heard enough first and second-hand accounts of COVID-19 testing criteria seemingly improvised at the whim of whoever answered the phone that day. The public accounts matched the same inconsistencies.

One young woman turned herself in for testing after returning from Dubai, even though the country wasn’t on the list of coronavirus hotbeds. She ended up Zadar’s first positive case

A week later, an older man — a guy I heard about — returned from Turkey with a list of symptoms that overlaps the COVID-19 checklist. He was dismissed for days. Turkey had few infections at the time. Finally, epidemiologists tested him after some string-pulling and glad-handing required to get pretty much anything done. He was Zadar’s fourth case.

Those inconsistencies resurface after the Adria Tour left, and not just in Plenkovic's case.

Croatia’s Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said anyone who came into contact with a tennis player should go into self-isolation and will be contacted by an epidemiologist. Yet many have not.

The minister also downplayed any lapses by government officials and organizers who let the tournament and promotional events go on without enforcing social distancing rules, claiming individuals were responsible for their own behavior.

"We have shown that we know how to stop the virus,” he said. "This is not a situation we cannot deal with, I am sure that in the coming days the level of awareness among people, among all those who organize events, will rise and that we will return to even lower figures.”

Epidemiologists in Zadar said in a press conference that locals who attended the tournament need not worry.

"People who have been on the courts, in the stands, do not need to worry and should not go into self-isolation,” according to Dr. Alan Medic, chief epidemiologist for Zadar County. Kids who walked on the tennis courts shouldn’t go to school, he added.

Now, Health Minister Vili Beroš has evolved from a stoic caretaker of public health to a peddler of contested theories, the latest claiming the virus mutated into a benign bug. Initially, he said it will go away on its own without a second wave.

“I think the virus, like its predecessors SARS and MERS, will do what it does and disappear into history,” he said in an interview on HRT.

The tennis court which hosted the Adria Tour disappeared into history. The coronavirus remains.