The top seed and 17-time grand slam champion had just dropped serve to trail Spanish opponent Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 in the opening set of their fourth-round match on Arthur Ashe Stadium when the incident occurred.
How the incident unfolded
Djokovic, who had missed three set points at 5-4 before hurting his shoulder in a fall, hit a ball behind him without looking that struck a female line judge in the throat.
The line judge collapsed to the court and could be heard gasping for air as Djokovic rushed over to check on her condition.
Djokovic pleaded his case during lengthy discussions with tournament referee Soeren Friemel and grand slam supervisor Andreas Egli, but the officials’ mind was made up.
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🚨NOVAK DJOKOVIC DISQUALIFIED 🚨
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) September 6, 2020
“The facts were discussed and explained by the chair umpire and the Grand Slam Supervisor,” Friemel said. “In this situation, it is especially important that we are 100 per cent sure what exactly happened. The facts were established, and then I had to speak to Novak Djokovic, [to] give him the chance to state his point of view.
“His point was that he didn’t hit the line umpire intentionally… We all agree that he didn’t do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and that the line umpire was clearly hurt.”
“There was no other option,” Friemel added. “Intent is part of the discussion, but there are two factors: one is the action and [the other] the result. The action, while there was no intent, the result of hitting the line umpire and [her] clearly being hurt is the essential factor in the decision-making process here.”
What the rules say
A statement from tournament organisers read: “In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook… the US Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open.”
According to the US Open:
There are two ways to be defaulted from a match: through an accumulation of code violations or by a singularly egregious act.
A default is one of tennis’ rarest punishments, if only because of the type of on-court actions that are considered a catalyst for it. Tennis matches are adjudicated by a code of conduct, and the punishment for violating the code—through actions such as ball abuse, racquet abuse, unsportsmanlike conduct, and other similar offenses—accumulate typically over the course of a match.
The first code violation is a warning, the second comes with a point penalty, and the third comes with a game penalty—with the offending player subject to default at the referee’s discretion at any time should the code be violated again thereafter. However, when a situation such as Sunday’s arises in a match, the Point Penalty Schedule may be bypassed in favor of an immediate default.
Section T of Article III, “On-Site Player Offenses,” of the ITF Grand Slam rulebook discusses the procedure of defaulting a player from a match, and also that the decision cannot be changed.
“In all cases of default,” it reads, “the decision of the Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors shall be final and unappealable.”
Also, as per the Grand Slam rules, any player who is defaulted from a tournament loses all points and prize money that they would have gained as a result of completing the event.
Who else has been defaulted previously
Djokovic is not the first player to be defaulted in similar circumstances, but for it to happen at a grand slam and as the tournament favourite is an extraordinary situation.
Canadian Denis Shapovalov was defaulted during a Davis Cup tie against Great Britain in 2017 after smashing a ball in anger that hit umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye.
Tim Henman was disqualified from Wimbledon 25 years ago for hitting a ball girl with a ball during a doubles match while David Nalbandian kicked an advertising hoarding during the Queen’s final in 2012, injuring a line judge, and was defaulted.
‘I apologise to the US Open tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour’ – what Djokovic said afterwards
After the premature end to his bid for an 18th Grand Slam, Djokovic left the grounds without attending a press conference – a decision that drew criticism.
The 33-year-old later wrote 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.”
He subsequently accepted the decision, saying in his statement: “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 apologise to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour. 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.”
How the tennis world reacted
‘There’s no doubt it’s the right decision’ – Tim Henman
Speaking on Amazon Prime, Henman said: “It’s a massive shock. There’s no doubt it’s the right decision. It’s amazing for me to talk about this because it happened to me at Wimbledon in 1995. It was that moment of frustration, hit the ball away when I wasn’t looking and I hit a ball girl in the ear.”
‘I was in shock’ – match opponent Carreno Busta
Carreno Busta had sympathy for Djokovic but felt it was the right decision.
He said: “I was in shock. I never expected this moment playing against Novak. So it was a tough moment also for me.
“I don’t think that any one of us do this kind of thing intentionally. It’s just the moment. The referee and the supervisor do the right thing, but it is not easy.”
‘It’s very unfortunate that he hit the line judge, and especially where it hit her’ – Alexander Zverev, fifth seed
“It’s very unfortunate that he hit the line judge, and especially where it hit her,” Zverev told reporters.
“Very unlucky for Novak. I think he’s going to be a little bit upset about it. If he would have hit it anywhere else, if it would have landed anywhere else, we are talking about a few inches, he would have been fine.
“I’m a little bit in shock right now.”
‘Unbelievable’ – Martina Navratilova, 18-times Grand Slam singles champion
“Unbelievable what just happened on the court,” she wrote on Twitter. “Novak Djokovic defaulted for inadvertently but stupidly hitting a lineswoman in the throat with a ball and the officials had no choice but to default.
“Wow… #sad Glad the woman is ok- we must do better than that.”
‘The rule is the rule’ – Billie Jean King, 12-times Grand Slam singles champion
“I hope the line judge is okay,” she wrote on Twitter. “The rule is the rule. It is unfortunate for everyone involved, but in this specific situation the default was the right call.”
‘You are not allowed to do that’ – Mats Wilander, seven-times Grand Slam singles champion
“You are not allowed to do that,” he said. “It’s as much bad luck as you can have on a tennis court. He didn’t just roll the ball back to the ball kid, that’s the bottom line.
“He hit it harder than he intended to, obviously a complete accident. It was a sign of frustration, yes. A little bit. But it doesn’t matter, you are not allowed to do it.”
‘They had no other choice’ – Alex Corretja, former French Open finalist
“It’s amazing how one centimetre can change not only the match, but the future of our sport, the history of our sport,” he told Eurosport.
“With the rule as it is, you need to disqualify him. It’s obvious they had no other choice, it’s a pity…”
‘Novak deserved it’ – Tim Mayotte, coach and former player
“Almost every high-performance player I train does what Novak did in firing the ball,” he posted on Twitter. “I tell them to stop it, and break the habit for this exact reason, they eventually hit someone and it won’t be good. Yes, Novak deserved it.”
‘How many years would I be banned for?’ – Nick Kyrgios, Australian tennis player
“Swap me for jokers incident. ‘Accidentally hitting the ball kid in the throat’ how many years would I be banned for? 5? 10? 20?” he wrote on Twitter.
What is next?
Djokovic will have to get used to being the “bad guy”, American great John McEnroe has said.
“The pressure just got to him. I think a lot has been going on off the court,” McEnroe told ESPN.
“It’s obviously affected him and whether he likes it or not, he’s going to be the bad guy the rest of his career.
“If he embraces that role, I think he could recover. He’s got a lot of things going for him, but this is a stain that he’s not going to be able to erase.”
What do you think? Did Djokovic deserved to be defaulted? Should he now receive an additional punishment? Does the rule need adjusting? Have your say in the comments section below.
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