NEW YORK (AP) – Novak Djokovic was kicked out of the United States (US) Open for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball after dropping a game in his fourth-round match on Sunday, a stunning end to his 29-match winning streak and bid for an 18th Grand Slam title.
As he walked to the Arthur Ashe Stadium sideline for a changeover, trailing Pablo Carreño Busta 6-5 in the first set, Djokovic — who was seeded and ranked number one and an overwhelming favourite for the championship — angrily smacked a ball behind him. The ball flew right at the line judge, who dropped to her knees at the back of the court and reached for her neck.
During a discussion of about 10 minutes near the net involving tournament referee Soeren Friemel, Grand Slam supervisor Andreas Egli and chair umpire Aurelie Tourte, Djokovic pleaded his case.
“His point was that he didn’t hit the line umpire intentionally. He said, ‘Yes, I was angry. I hit the ball. I hit the line umpire. The facts are very clear. But it wasn’t my intent. I didn’t do it on purpose.’ So he said he shouldn’t be defaulted for it,” said Friemel, who made the decision to end the match. “And we all agree that he didn’t do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and the line umpire was clearly hurt.”
Friemel didn’t see what happened, and said he was not allowed to check a video replay, but was given a rundown by Egli and Tourte. Friemel said that even if Djokovic didn’t intend to hurt the line judge, she was hurt, and that was enough to merit the ruling.
Eventually, Djokovic walked over to shake hands with Carreño Busta. Tourte then announced that Djokovic was defaulted, the tennis equivalent of an ejection.
“I was a little bit in shock, no?” Carreño Busta said later at a news conference done via video conference because of social-distancing rules at the US Open, the first Grand Slam tournament staged amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Djokovic quickly left the tournament grounds without speaking to reporters, posting an apology on social media hours later.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that she is feeling ok. I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong,” Djokovic wrote.
“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,” he wrote. “I apologise to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour.”
Asked whether he thought Djokovic should have been allowed to continue to play, Carreño Busta shrugged and replied: “Well, the rules are the rules. … The referee and the supervisor (did) the right thing, but it’s not easy to do it.”
Indeed, the US Tennis Association (USTA) issued a statement saying that Friemel defaulted Djokovic “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 USTA went on to say Djokovic forfeits the ranking points and USD250,000 in prize money he earned in the tournament — “in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident.”
“Novak was angry. He hit the ball recklessly, angrily back. And taking everything into consideration, there was no discretion involved,” Friemel said. “Defaulting a player at a Grand Slam is a very important, very tough decision. And for that reason, it doesn’t matter if it’s on Ashe, if it’s No 1, or any other player on any other court, you need to get it right.”
This was the latest example of Djokovic finding himself at the centre of the tennis world for a reason other than his best-in-the-game returns, can’t-miss groundstrokes and body-contorting defensive prowess.
Djokovic tested positive for the coronavirus — as did his wife, one of his coaches and other players — after participating in a series of exhibition matches with zero social distancing he organised in Serbia and Croatia in June.
Then, on the eve of the US Open, he helped establish a new association he said will represent men’s tennis players.
And, of course, there’s been his dominance on the court.
Djokovic began the day 26-0 this season and with an unbeaten run that extended to his last three matches of 2019. He had won five of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments to raise his total to 17, closing in on rivals Roger Federer, who has a men’s-record 20, and Rafael Nadal, who has 19.
With reigning US Open champion Nadal, who cited concerns about travelling amid the pandemic, and Federer, sidelined after two knee operations, not in the field, the 33-year-old from Serbia was expected to claim a fourth trophy in New York and gain on them.
But it all came apart so suddenly on Sunday. Djokovic wasn’t looking in the line judge’s direction when his racket made contact with the ball, and there was concern on his face as soon as he realised what had happened.
Players who hit a ball out of anger and make contact with an on-court official have been disqualified in the past.