Adria Tour - Belgrade

The first leg of the Adria tour kicks off in Belgrade with Djokovic, Thiem, Zverev, Dimitrov and company

Tennis is back. Sort of. While the rest of the tennis world is busy debating whether, and if yes, then how to, return to playing, the people behind Novak Djokovic got up and did it. The Adria Tour, a series of exhibition matches spanning four weekends (originally five with the Montenegro leg now cancelled due to lockdown complications), debuted this week in Belgrade. If these past three months the pandemic-stricken world of sports signalled any return to normality, it was always with the understanding that once professional sport returns, it will take on a very different form. No fans, no ball boys, no handshakes and no fun.

So if you were expecting the Adria Tour to look like a tennis version of Mad Max, with some of the world’s best paid athletes reduced to picking up their own balls, making the long trek to the far end of the court to pick up a towel and acknowledging each other’s games by bumping racquets together, you’re in for a surprise.

Tennis has returned — and with it, caution thrown to the wind, all the familiar sights. The structure of the tournament split the players — five Serbs, a German, a Bulgarian and an Austrian — into two round robin groups with the winners of each group facing off in the Sunday evening final. For many, if not all, players taking part in the exhibition, this was their first taste of competitive tennis in over 3 months. In order not to put their fitness to test, the tournament took on a slightly shorter format with the best-of-3-sets matches played first to 4 games, and a tiebreaker at 3-games-all. This is where the differences end, however, as the remaining elements of the tournament were tennis as we know it. Despite months of warnings regarding the future of professional sport and the changes it will have to adopt in order to happen, if you were flipping through channels and happened to catch the Adria Tour on TV, you could be forgiven mistaking it for yet another rerun. Ball boys sprinted back and forth across the orange clay, players waited patiently between points to have towels handed to them, and at the end of each match, packed audiences witnessed a loving embrace. So much for social distancing. As the camera panned over the picturesque riverbank of the Novak Tennis Centre, it was easy to forget that the world is still coming to terms with the immediate aftermath of a pandemic. To paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm, the organisers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Still, the morality of holding the event notwithstanding, we were served up a tennis treat. The tournament, with its polished Laver Cup-esque feel, is the closest we’ve had to professional tennis in over 3 months and it didn’t take long for the muscle memory to kick in. The peculiarity and a sense of old-worldness of clay tennis evoked gasps of admiration, and sometimes disbelief, as the spectacle of tennis resumed. And if the intensity of play wasn’t quite where it had been when the game was stopped in its tracks, the visible passion and unbridled joy of playing tennis made up for the lack of form. When the camera zoomed out to show the Novak Tennis Centre in all its beauty, the orange courts neatly lining up against the blue backdrop of the Danube river brought to mind the Monte-Carlo Masters.

June 13, Saturday • 27° 🔆

The day 1 order of play did not disappoint despite the top draws managing to avoid each other. The action kicked off with Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov going up against Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic. And with the very first point, as the sound of crushing forehands and booming backhands reverberated around the court, tennis was back as if it had never stopped. The crowd did their part and provided their compatriot with vociferous support, but great tennis was applauded all around. On paper, the match was a mere exhibition, but passion, enthusiasm and tennis of the highest level were very much on display. The shorter format could have meant that the encounters will miss out on twists and turns normally found in a tennis match, but curiously, it also meant that with less time to catch up in the match, every point counted for more, and every double fault or errant shot hurt doubly. The tightly contested battle went the whole length after the players split the first two sets taking a tiebreak each, but ultimately, Dimitrov proved too strong, breaking Lajovic twice in the final set and claiming his first victory of the tournament. If the first match was anything to go by, we were in for an entertaining weekend.

After Damir Dzumhur was forced to retire having played just two games against Dominic Thiem, it was time for the home favourite to take to the court. The 17-time Grand Slam champion was all smiles as he warmed up against his good friend, Viktor Troicki, basking in the adulation of the crowd. He is the closest Serbia has to a cult icon. It turned out to be a difficult afternoon for Viktor who found himself outplayed for large parts of the match. He took it in stride, however, making light of his struggles, wildly celebrating a point he’d managed to win and, at one point, having seemingly exhausted all other possibilities, handing his racquet to a ball boy. The young man rose to the occasion cracking two decent forehands at Djokovic and successfully ending the rally with a dropshot. Troicki would have been looking on with interest, having not found a way to deal with Novak’s game himself.

The final match of the afternoon session saw world number 7 Sascha Zverev take on Filip Krajinovic, ranked 32. Sascha stepped out on the court with his usual demeanour of somebody who’s got better things to do, and he played the first set as if to prove that point, getting trounced 4:0. Krajinovic, for his part, didn’t let Sascha take all the credit for the score and played some electrifying tennis, breaking Zverev at the beginning of the second set, and taking a commanding 2:0 lead on serve. Despite winning none of the opening 6 games, Sascha managed to settle into the match and regain control. He levelled the second set forcing a tiebreak and won the final set in a similar fashion. Krajinovic will have felt that he let Zverev off the hook in that match, but it is no secret that when Sascha is playing his best tennis, there is not much that can be done to stop him.

As the evening drew on and the night session began, Nikola Milojević replaced injured Damir Dzumhur. After a nervous start, the Serb ranked 145 in the world, grew into the game and, in the end, managed to upset misfiring, and at times exasperated, Dimitrov, winning the match 4:1 4:3 (7:4). Dominic Thiem made a slow start to his match against Dusan Lajovic, losing the first set 1:4, but he recovered well, reversing the score in the second set and taking the third in a tightly contested tiebreak 4:3 (8:6). This would have been the only set that Thiem will have dropped before the final.

The surprise of the day was provided courtesy of Filip Krajinovic who carried on with his fine form from the opening match of the day and upset Novak Djokovic 2:4 4:2 4:1, severely diminishing the home favourite’s chances of making the final. The day’s action came to end with Alexander Zverev, who, having finally found his feet, played a game fit for the heir apparent to the Big 3 and dispatched with Viktor Troicki in a routine fashion 4:1 4:1.

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) def. Dusan Lajovic (SRB) 4:3 (7:2) 3:4 (5:7) 4:1
Dominic Thiem (AUT) def. Damir Dzumhur (BIH) 2:0 Dzumhur retired
Novak Djokovic (SRB) def. Viktor Troicki (SRB) 4:1 4:1
Alexander Zverev (GER) def. Filip Krajinovic (SRB) 0:4 4:3 (7:5) 4:3 (7:2)

Nikola Milojevic (SRB) def. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) 4:1 4:3 (7:4)
Dominic Thiem (AUT) def. Dusan Lajovic (SRB) 1:4 4:1 4:3 (8:6)
Filip Krajinovic (SRB) def. Novak Djokovic (SRB) 2:4 4:2 4:1
Alexander Zverev (GER) def. Viktor Troicki (SRB) 4:1 4:1

June 14, Sunday • 28° 🔆

Going into Day 2, Thiem and Zverev led their respective groups, and with 4 matches remaining, it was shaping up to be a true feast for the tennis fans in attendance. Whatever sacrifice the organisers made at the altar of tennis to pull off this event, it clearly extended to the weather. Sun shone brightly over the blue skies as Nikola Milojevic and Dusan Lajovic, the first pair of the day, stepped out on to the court. Milojevic started off sharply, determined to build on his performance from Saturday, and managed to grind out the first set in a 30-minute battle 4:3 (7:0). Lajovic retired afterwards. In a curious twist, Team Milojevic/Dzumhur would have been within a shot of a spot in the final had they not lost the first match.

Filip Krajinovic edged closer to the final with a win over Viktor Troicki in two sets 4:0 4:3 (7:5). Novak Djokovic, next up on the centre court, made a blistering start to his match against Sascha Zverev, taking the first set 4:0 in just 13 minutes, but the Serb’s chances of making the final evaporated when he lost the second set 1:4. Although he had won the match 4:0 1:4 4:2, dropping the second set meant that he narrowly missed out on the final to Krajinovic with a set difference. Djokovic, visibly emotional, broke down in tears during his post-match interview. “I was very emotional on the court today. Childhood memories started flooding back, including those of growing up on these courts and playing here as a young boy,” said the 33-year old after the match. It was clear how much staging the event in his home town meant to him.

Although on paper the last match of the main portion of the event was largely inconsequential, as Grigor Dimitrov’s win/loss record meant that he could do nothing to stop Dominic Thiem from reaching the final, it proved to be perhaps the best one yet. Fine tennis was very much in attendance as both players took off to a blistering start. Dominic, usually reserved and focused to a fault, seemed a little more relaxed, at one point having to stifle laughter when a misshit made the ball just catch the line causing Dimitrov to throw his arms up in the air in exasperation. On another occasion, when caught out of position during an attacking transition, he attempted a tweener dropshot. Both Thiem and Dimitrov went toe-to-toe holding their service games in the first set and going into a tiebreak. Dominic proved the stronger player taking it with a commanding score of 4:3 (7:2). He picked up in the second set exactly where he left off racing to a 2:0 start. Grisha, as Dimitrov is affectionately known to friends, managed to claw his way back into the game forcing a brutal tiebreak in the second set, but he missed out on an opportunity to level the match, failing to convert a set point serving at 6:5. Ultimately, Dominic prevailed in fine fashion, placing a cherry on top of his victory by once again attempting an approach tweener, this time successfully.

Nikola Milojevic (SRB) def. Dusan Lajovic (SRB) 4:3 (7:0) Lajovic retired
Filip Krajinovic (SRB) def. Viktor Troicki (SRB) 4:0 4:3 (7:5)
Novak Djokovic (SRB) def. Alexander Zverev (GER) 4:0 1:4 4:2
Dominic Thiem (AUT) def. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) 4:3 (7:2) 4:3 (8:6)

The winners of both groups met on Sunday evening to the cheer of a 4,000 strong crowd. Krajinovic played like a man possessed but, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to topple Thiem, who by then had found his pre-lockdown form. It used to be said that you cannot touch Nadal on clay or Jesus on water. Perhaps we should add Dominic on clay to that list, too.

FINAL: Dominic Thiem (AUT) def. Filip Krajinovic (SRB) 4:3 (7:2) 2:4 4:2

The jury is still out on whether staging a fan-attended tournament 3 months before the Tour had agreed to resume is a reckless or a visionary decision. On the one hand, we were served a spectacular tennis show and a much-needed respite from the lockdown blues. On the other hand, as the event unfolded over the weekend, voices of justified criticism took to air. The next leg of the tournament is set to take place in Zadar, and as we wait, the air of uncertainty lingers. The joy of having tennis back is undeniable, but the price we may yet have to pay weighs heavy.