After all of Novak Djokovic’s off-court controversies in the past few months, an on-court misdemeanour has resulted in him being defaulted from the US Open.
The in-form World No. 1 was an overwhelming favourite when he inadvertently struck a line umpire in the throat by hitting a ball in her direction after losing the serve to his Spanish opponent Pablo Carreno Busta.
Conspiracy theorists may say the harsh decision was a way for the governing bodies to get back at him for forming a rival players’ association a day before the US Open, but the decision was by the book. And it’s something that even Tim Henman – the darling of British tennis – faced at Wimbledon in 1995.
Djokovic’s removal from the competition has ensured that for the first time since the 2014 US Open, there will now emerge a first-time men’s singles Grand Slam champion. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are not playing in the tournament.
What was the incident that led to Djokovic’s disqualification?
Djokovic was serving at 5-5 in the opening set, and was broken at a crucial stage – which meant his opponent would be serving for the set in the next game.
In frustration, as he walked back to the baseline, Djokovic took the ball in his pocket and without looking, hit it fairly hard towards the left corner. The ball caught the line umpire square on the neck, and she immediately tumbled to the ground, clutching at the point of impact.
The Serb superstar immediately raised his arm in apology and went over to check on the line umpire. The chair umpire Aurélie Tourte followed, and the tournament referee Soeren Friemel, and Grand Slam Supervisor Andreas Egli too were called on court.
After a 10-minute discussion, Friemel made the decision to default Djokovic. He later told reporters: “Based on the facts that the ball was hit angrily, recklessly; that it went straight at the line umpire’s throat; that the line umpire was clearly hurt and in pain, the decision was made that Novak had to be defaulted.”
What do the rules say?
The USTA – organisers of the US Open – issued a statement: “In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, following his actions of intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences, the US Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open.
“Because he was defaulted, Djokovic will lose all ranking points earned at the US Open and will be fined the prize money won at the tournament in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident.”
A ‘default’ is a rare punishment handed out to players, and can be done because of either a single deed, or through a collection of warnings (a fourth warning in the same match results in a default) that include verbal, ball, racquet abuse, unsportsmanlike conduct and other offences.
According to Section T of the ITF Grand Slam rulebook, which deals with on-site player offences, “The Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors may declare a default for either a single violation of this Code or pursuant to the Point Penalty Schedule set out above.
“In all cases of default, the decision of the Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors shall be final and unappealable. Any player who is defaulted as herein provided shall lose all ranking points earned for that event at that tournament and may be fined up to the prize money won at the tournament in addition to any or all other fines levied with respect to the offending incident.”
Djokovic’s action, regardless of whether it was intentional or not, fit the bill.
View this post on Instagram
This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that thank God she is feeling ok. I‘m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being. I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry. Cela ova situacija me cini zaista tužnim i praznim. Proverio sam kako se oseca linijski sudija, i prema informacijama koje sam dobio, oseca se dobro, hvala Bogu. Njeno ime ne mogu da otkrijem zbog ocuvanja njene privatnosti. Jako mi je žao što sam joj naneo takav stres. Nije bilo namerno. Bilo je pogrešno. Želim da ovo neprijatno iskustvo, diskvalifikaciju sa turnira, pretvorim u važnu životnu lekciju, kako bih nastavio da rastem i razvijam se kao covek, ali i teniser. Izvinjavam se organizatorima US Opena. Veoma sam zahvalan svom timu i porodici što mi pružaju snažnu podršku, kao i mojim navijacima jer su uvek uz mene. Hvala vam i žao mi je. Bio je ovo težak dan za sve.
What was Djokovic’s reaction?
On court, Djokovic was heard pleading with the tournament referee not to default him.
“She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this,” he was heard saying. “You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, Grand Slam, centre stage. If she would have gotten up right away… You have a game penalty, set penalty, many options.”
According to The Guardian, Djokovic left the venue immediately after and returned to his rented accommodation, and gave no indication that he would be returning to the site to offer an explanation.
He did issue a statement on social media a short while later, though.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me thank God she is feeling ok,” Djokovic said in an Instagram post.
“As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.
“I apologize to the US Open tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry.”
Have other players been defaulted in the past?
Yes. There have been a few.
* Tim Henman was defaulted during the 1995 Wimbledon Championships after he hit a ball towards the net in anger after losing a point, and inadvertently struck a ball girl who had been running to the spot in the process.
* Current World No. 17 Denis Shapovalov defaulted a Davis Cup rubber against Great Britain in January 2017 after intending to hit a ball into the stands, but accidentally hitting it straight at the chair umpire, who was struck on the eye.
* In the final of the 2016 Istanbul ATP, Grigor Dimitrov defaulted his match after breaking all his racquets, handing the title to Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.
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Has Djokovic been accused of dangerous behaviour in the past?
In the quarterfinal of the 2016 French Open against Tomas Berdych, angered by missing out on a break point opportunity, Djokovic flung his racquet backwards without looking, nearly hitting one of the line judges.
At the ATP Tour Finals the same year, in a match against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic hit a ball into the stands. Later, during the press conference when he was asked about the incident, he said “It’s not an issue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.”
Neither incident resulted in a default.
He has been controversial off-court too, hasn’t he?
In the build-up to the US Open, he resigned from his position as president of the ATP Council and just two days before the Grand Slam, launched a rival players’ association.
During the raging Covid-19 pandemic, he organised the Adria Tour charity event in Belgrade and Zadar, allowing capacity crowds to the venues with no social distancing or safety protocols in place. Players also took part in friendly basketball and football matches.
The event had to be cancelled after four players, including Djokovic himself, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
He had also raised eyebrows when he claimed that dirty water could be purified just by “positive thoughts”. His wife Jelena also claimed that the virus could spread through 5G Internet speeds.
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