The 2020 US Open was a strange time not just in the world of tennis, but in the world itself. The coronavirus pandemic was still an active threat to the world, even though most nations saw receding first waves. However, sporting events and the like were still being played behind closed doors. As such, the US Open was played out in front of absolutely no fans. To make things worse, Novak Djokovic – who was widely expected to win the Slam – ended up getting disqualified in the fourth round? The reason? He sent a stray tennis ball straight at a line judge’s throat.
Yes, the world number one and top seed got disqualified for an incident that, as such, had little to do with sport. But his disqualification was well within the rules.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the incident died down easily. With exactly a year having passed since then, let us now look back at the time Novak Djokovic let his temper get the better of him – and paid the price.
Djokovic was the favourite to win the Grand Slam coming into the tournament. Roger Federer was recovering from knee surgery and Rafael Nadal pulled out due to the COVID-19 situation.
Thus, the easy money was that Djokovic would go the distance. He began the tournament in dominant fashion too. He sailed past Damir Dzumhur in the first round.
In the second round, he dropped a set to British player Kyle Edmund. However, he win the next three sets and easily made it into round three. There he beat Jan-Lennard Struff in straight sets and was into round four.
His opponent for the round? Pablo Carreno Busta. The Spaniard isn’t the easiest of opponents, although most believed Djokovic would easily win the match.
Little did they know how things would pan out.
The match started with Djokovic on top for the most part. However, arguably the turning point came when he failed to convert three set points while 5-4 up.
Busta then scored six straight points on the trot, meaning he not only levelled the match at 5-5 but was leading 0-15. On the last point, Djokovic jarred his shoulder while chasing a wide shot.
He received medical attention but his downturn in fortunes carried on. Busta would end up breaking his serve and went up 6-5 in the first set.
Djokovic was clearly frustrated that, from a winning position, he was now staring at a loss in the first set. He took out a spare tennis ball from his pocket and whacked it with frustration.
The ball was not hit with too much force, or indeed towards anyone or anything. But, to Djokovic’s horror, it ended up striking a line judge straight in the throat.
She fell down choking and clearly in some pain, with play naturally brought to a halt. Djokovic chatted with the tournament referee in normal fashion, yet became agitated as he realised what this meant.
Djokovic was duly disqualified, with his prize money and ranking points also withheld. He thus became the first player since Stefan Koubek at the 2000 French Open to be defaulted from a Grand Slam.
Yes – Djokovic should have not struck the line official.
It clearly was not intentional but the rules in this case are crystal clear – which can’t be said about tennis’ bathroom break rules.
“Players shall not at any time physically abuse any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site. Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000 for each violation,” says the Grand Slam rule book.
“In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warmup), the player shall be penalised in accordance with the point penalty schedule. 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.
“For the purposes of this rule, physical abuse is the unauthorised touching of an official, opponent, spectator or other person.”
The way Djokovic behaved afterwards also attracted plenty of scrutiny. After a while arguing with the referee, he left the court and returned back to his rented home. It was also made clear he would not be returning to explain himself.
An uncomfirmed exchange between Djokovic and the official did not help matters. “She doesn’t have to go to hospital for this,” he said, while adding, “You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, grand slam, centre stage.”
Yet the rules were crystal clear, and as such Djokovic had no choice in this matter.