What does it take to have a new men’s singles Grand Slam champion since 2014? A pandemic, three former champions withdrawing from a tournament, another champion recovering from a hip surgery, and a disqualification.
That last, barely believable incident, also brought an end to Novak Djokovic’s unbeaten run in 2020.
In an untimely end to the world No 1’s seemingly straightforward passage to major No 18, Djokovic was disqualified from the US Open after inadvertently hitting a lineswoman with a stray ball during the first set of his last 16 match against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the near-empty Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday.
Having been broken to go 6-5 down, an angry Djokovic took out a ball from his pocket and, while not looking in that direction, smacked it towards the line judge. The ball struck the lineswoman’s neck on the full and she collapsed with cries of pain and breathlessness. The Serb immediately rushed towards the official who stayed on the ground for a few minutes before getting up and walking off in visible discomfort.
By then, the Grand Slam supervisor and US Open referee Soeren Friemel had assembled on the court. After the chair umpire summarised the incident to the referee, Friemel and Djokovic were engaged in an argument in which the latter blurted out sentences like “she doesn’t have to go to the hospital for that” and “you have many options”.
Not really. By the end of that approximately 10-minute chat, even Djokovic saw the writing on the wall: a win by default for Carreno Busta.
Djokovic shook hands with the seated Spaniard (forgot the racquet tap?) and quickly walked off the court as well as the USTA Billie Jean King Centre. Djokovic was docked of all the ranking points and $250,000 prize money he had gained for winning his first three rounds, while also receiving a fine for not addressing the media.
It further aggravated what has been a troublesome year for Djokovic. He had been 26-0 in his win-loss record this year before Sunday, yet his actions away from tennis did more of the talking: be it his anti-vaccine stance during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, his poorly executed Adria Tour exhibition matches in June that saw a host of players, including Djokovic himself, test positive, or his move to form a rebel player union just before the start of the US Open.
“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,” Djokovic wrote on his Instagram handle while apologising to the lineswoman. “So unintended. So wrong.”
Unintended it may have been, but the ITF Grand Slam rulebook clearly mentions the consequences of physical abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct on court. Usually, code violations invite a warning, a point penalty and a game penalty before a default for subsequent offences (remember Serena Williams receiving a point penalty on match point in her 2009 US Open semi-final loss for verbally abusing a line judge?). However, the rules also mention cases of major offence of “Aggravated Behaviour” including “in circumstances that are flagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious” that could lead to a direct default.
“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,” reads Section T of Article III on defaults in the Grand Slam rulebook.
Therefore, once the ball hit the lineswoman with velocity, Djokovic fell in that category irrespective of his intent. “There was no other option,” referee Friemel was quoted as saying in the US Open website of his decision. “There are two factors: one is the action and (two) the result. The action, while there was no intent, the result of hitting the line umpire and (she) clearly being hurt is the essential factor in the decision-making process here.”
Djokovic has had his fair share of code violations in the past and he was playing with fire in this match too. He slammed a ball into the advertising hoardings on the side of the court after failing to break Carreno Busta’s serve from 0-40 in the previous game.
Incidentally, line officials have been employed only on the two main courts for this US Open, with electronic calls in use for all other outer courts.
A new winner, finally
Djokovic’s dramatic ouster now opens up the tournament, and there will be a fresh men’s singles major champion for the first time since Marin Cilic at the 2014 US Open. You’ll have to go further back for the last Slam without either of Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals: 2004 French Open.
“Now it gets really interesting,” said fifth seed Alexander Zverev, one of the prominent members of GenNext that can pounce on this opportunity.
Last year’s US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev of Russia may well wear the new favourites tag. But there’s also Austrian second seed Dominic Thiem, a three-time major finalist who has looked solid so far. Apart from Zverev, Russian Andrey Rublev and Canada’s Denis Shapovalov (also partnering Rohan Bopanna in doubles) are also among youngsters who will hope for a deeper run into the tournament now with the unbeaten Djokovic out of the picture.