By Agence France-Presse
Emotional Novak Djokovic broke down in tears in front of an enthusiastic home crowd in Belgrade after he failed to make the final in the first leg of his Balkans charity tennis tournament on Sunday.
“I am not crying because I missed the finals. I am just overwhelmed by emotion because this reminds me of my childhood,” the world number one told 4,000 fans packed into the Novak Tennis Centre on the banks of the Danube.
“It’s been an emotional few days and I want to thank everyone who supported the event and made it happen.”
To a standing ovation, the 33-year-old added: “I love you all and thank you so much for coming.”
Third-ranked Dominic Thiem, number seven Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, the world 19, also took part in the Adria Tour event that got underway on Saturday.
The four headline stars were joined by Serbian ATP players — Viktor Troicki, Filip Krajinovic and Dusan Lajovic.
Two big surprises marked the first day — Djokovic lost to Krajinovic in three sets and Dimitrov went down in two against late call-up Nikola Milojevic.
Djokovic’s win against Zverev on Sunday was not enough to secure him a place in the final which saw Thiem defeat Krajinovic 4-3, 2-4, 4-2.
The event had suffered an embarrassing setback on Saturday when the planned Montenegro leg of the four-nation tour was cancelled over coronavirus protocol rules.
Montenegro was due to be the third stop on June 27 and 28 after Croatia and before the conclusion in Bosnia.
But organizers said the visit to the neighboring country was called off when it became apparent Serbia did not match strict health requirements.
Meanwhile, asked to comment on social distancing measures during the Belgrade weekend, which witnessed packed stands, Djokovic said that both Serbia and the region had been relatively successful in containing the virus.
“Of course you can criticize, you can also say this is dangerous or not, but it’s not up to me to make the calls what is health-wise right or wrong,” he told reporters, stressing he was acting in line with recommendations of the Serbian government.
Balkan countries coped with the coronavirus pandemic with relative success.
The region of some 22 million people registered about 24,000 infections and fewer than 800 deaths.
The ATP and WTA Tours have been suspended since March due to the pandemic and will not resume at least until the end of July.
Initially, the organizers in Belgrade, respecting the rules in force after the relaxation of the lockdown in Serbia, put 1,000 tickets on sale.
They sold out in just seven minutes.
Since then, the authorities further relaxed the lockdown and another 1,000 tickets were put on sale and they sold out almost as quickly.
An additional 2,000 tickets were distributed to various sponsors.
“It’s fantastic, we are the capital of the tennis world this weekend,” said Dusan Bogicevic, 25, a law student from Belgrade.
However, spectators appeared to have little regard for health precautions.
Each person was given a mask at the entrance to the stadium, but inside only a few wore them.
Among the players, Zverev of Germany was happy to be back playing.
“To tell you the truth I didn’t see that many people in one room in quite a while,” Zverev told a press conference.
On June 20 and 21, the Adria Tour tournament will move to Zadar, on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
Djokovic will be joined there by Croatia’s 2014 US Open winner Marin Cilic and Borna Coric.
The final stop in Bosnia will be in the northwestern town of Banja Luka on July 3 and 4.
The tournament will close on July 5 with an exhibition match in Sarajevo between Djokovic and Bosnia’s Damir Dzumhur.