US Open 2020: Novak Djokovic only had on-court results going his way this year, now he's lost that too

Novak Djokovic was 26-0 in 2020 and favourite to lift the US Open title. Following his default in the fourth round, a new champion will be crowned for the first time.

Tanuj Lakhina September 07, 2020 12:22:41 IST
US Open 2020: Novak Djokovic only had on-court results going his way this year, now he's lost that too

Novak Djokovic checks on the lineswoman after catching her on the throat with a ball. AP

Tennis is not unknown to misbehaviour and bad attitude from players. It is not new to players arguing with the officials, even when it leads to nothing. It is not new to players losing their cool and coming to physically or verbally abuse those who ensure smooth functioning of matches - the officials. What comes later are actions: fines and bans on the court; public scrutiny and possible financial impact away from it.

What was new, on Sunday, 6 September, was that a World No 1 was defaulted at a Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic, on a 26-0 run in 2020, and a strong favourite to win at the US Open, was ousted from the tournament.

At 5-6 in his fourth round match against Pablo Carreño Busta, Djokovic smacked a ball in the direction of the line judge who was caught flush on her throat. A game prior, Djokovic was treated for pain in his left shoulder, and a recovering Novak conceded a game to the Spaniard.

After losing the final point of the game (and, eventually, the match), he took a ball from his pocket and hit it towards the back of the court. The line judge, far away from the baseline, was struck and cried out. She crumpled to the ground, as Djokovic rushed to check on her condition.

As the official was taken off court to receive treatment, tournament referee Soeren Friemel and Grand Slam supervisor Andreas Egli arrived on court. Following a lengthy exchange, Djokovic said, “I know it’s tough for you whatever call you make.”

It was a tough call but inevitable as Djokovic was disqualified. Or, defaulted as the term goes in tennis.

“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” Djokovic said on social media later. “I checked on the linesperson 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.”

Djokovic continued: “I need to go back 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 (sic).”

“Well, the rules are the rules," said Carreño Busta, who had lost his three previous matches against Djokovic. “The referee and the supervisor did the right thing but it’s not easy to do it, no?”

If the tournament wasn’t weird enough, it just hit a new level. A Grand Slam being conducted in the middle of a pandemic. A tournament that has come under scrutiny from players over its handling of the positive case and contact tracing. A tournament that had a day prior withdrawn its top women’s doubles pairing. One can question the consistency of the decisions by the tournament but one can’t fault the organisers for taking bold decisions. Even taking out the top-ranked player in the world. A 17-time Grand Slam winner for breaking the rules.

The default in question is one that pertains to “physical abuse” as per the Grand Slam rule book. It prohibits “physical abuse” and says players “shall not at any time physically abuse any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site.”

The rule further elaborates on the ramifications of such behaviour. A player can be fined up to $20,000 for each violation, with the possibility of escalation if it is deemed a “major offence.”

US Open 2020 Novak Djokovic only had oncourt results going his way this year now hes lost that too

Novak Djokovic had a lengthy discussion with the tournament officials at the US Open. AP

“In circumstances that are flagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious, a single violation of this section shall also constitute the major offence of ‘Aggravated Behaviour’ and shall be subject to the additional penalties hereinafter set forth,” the rule book goes on to say.

At the top level of punishment, “aggravated behaviour” can trigger “a fine of up to $250,000 or the amount of prize money won at the tournament, whichever is greater, and a maximum penalty of permanent suspension from play in all Grand Slam tournaments.”

For reaching the fourth round, Djokovic had earned prize money of $250,000 which will now be docked. He could be fined further for his actions and missing the mandatory press conference. He would also not win any ranking points, the USTA confirmed in a statement later.

“In accordance with the Grand Slam rule book, 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,” said the USTA.

Djokovic pleaded his case to the officials in the mid-match chat at the net. He said the line judge would not need to go to the hospital. A tournament official, on court, stated the consequences might have been different had the line judge not collapsed to the ground and stayed there for a prolonged time in distress.

At the 1990 Australian Open, John McEnroe also argued that he wasn’t aware of the rules upon being defaulted. After glaring at a lines person, the American received a conduct code violation. A racket abuse violation followed soon after. Things escalated immediately, as did McEnroe’s temper, leading to a third and final code violation for abusive language. McEnroe became the first player to be defaulted at a Grand Slam since 1963, 17 years prior.

In 1995, Tim Henman became the first player in the Open era to be disqualified from Wimbledon after inadvertently hitting a ball girl in the head from close range. The Brit, playing doubles, was defaulted for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Closer to this side of the decade, David Nalbandian was defaulted at the Queen’s Club in 2012 for kicking a wooden box that was placed near a lines person. A big kick resulted in the line judge getting a bloody leg and a disqualification for the Argentine.

More recently, at the 2017 Davis Cup match between Canada and Great Britain, Denis Shapovalov whacked a ball in anger that struck chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye and affected his vision temporarily. Shapovalov, then 17-years-old, was defaulted for unsportsmanlike conduct and later fined $7,000 by the ITF. It was made clear then that Shapovalov did not intend to hit Gabas.

Shapovalov, through to the quarters, said on the Djokovic incident, “First of all, it's just super unfortunate for everybody. I mean, I've been in that situation so I know exactly how Novak is feeling. Of course, he had no intention to go after the lineswoman. Thankfully she's okay. It could have ended up very, very bad. Luckily everybody is okay. Like I said, it's just super unfortunate for everybody.

“Hopefully Novak can shake it off and move on. I mean, of course, he needs to grow and learn from this. But it's super, super unlucky as well. The ball could have went anywhere. It's just super unfortunate.”

US Open is not new to controversies involving players and officials. At the 2009 edition, Serena Williams was given a point penalty, when down match point, after she threatened to shove a ball down the throat of a linesperson who had called a foot fault.

At the 2018 final, Serena was once again at the heart of things. She went back and forth with the chair umpire Carlos Ramos before labelling the official as “a liar” and “a thief”. The American received code of conduct violations for coaching, racket abuse and verbal abuse but wasn’t defaulted. As a consequence of that high profile incident, Ramos was barred from officiating any Serena or sister Venus’ matches.

For Djokovic, it is another low in what has been a PR nightmare of a 2020. He has opposed vaccination, argued positive emotions can clarify water, organised an exhibition event where rules weren’t followed and questioned the smaller entourages rule in New York. The US Open offered a chance to clean that slate and shift the focus back to his tennis. Except, Djokovic has defaulted on the tennis court now.

With his ouster, there will be a first men’s singles Grand Slam champion since 2014 (Marin Cilic). For the first time since 2004 Roland Garros, none of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer will be in the semi-finals. Many had expected the 'Big Three’ to be dethroned but no one expected it to be done this way.

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