In a startling end to Novak Djokovic’s run at the 2020 US Open — but one that now opens the door for someone from the new generation of players to finally break through with a Grand Slam win —the world No. 1 was disqualified on Sunday for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with his tennis ball.
The top seed and the heavy favorite to win this year’s title in a field that was missing his chief rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Djokovic angrily swatted away a ball after losing a first-set service game to his round-of-16 opponent Pablo Carreño Busta, hitting a lineswoman in the throat and bringing her to the ground. Djokovic rushed over to apologize and comfort her.
But by then, the damage was done. As the ESPN announcers explained, tennis rules make it clear that when a ball that is struck in anger, and then hits anyone else in the vicinity of the court, it was almost immediate cause for immediate disqualification, which the umpire and judges seemed to be explaining to Djokovic at great length at net, while Carreño Busta sat in his chair, a towel around his neck. Meanwhile, ESPN continue to replay the moment, and viewers could hear the woman’s cry of pain and then what seemed to be her gasping for breath, as the ball made contact with her and she fell to the ground. The announcers, Darren Cahill and James Blake, along with studio hosts Renee Stubbs and Brad Gilbert, all former players, predicted that Djokovic would be disqualified, citing the precedents set in the past, like John McEnroe being ousted from the Australian Open and Tim Henman from Wimbledon for similar incidents.
Finally, after a delay of about 15 minutes, the verdict was delivered: Djokovic was out. The Serbian player, walked over to Carreño Busta, briefly shook his hand, and then grabbed his equipment bag and left the court. Minutes later, cameras showed him getting into his car in the US Open parking, and making his way home, skipping the mandatory press conference.
In a statement issued afterward, the United States Tennis Association said: “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.”
And on Twitter, the 12-time Grand Slam singles winner Billie Jean King, and the person for whom the U.S. Open playing ground is named, weighed in:
Here are my thoughts on the Novak Djokovic default.
First I hope the line judge is okay.
The rule is the rule. It is unfortunate for everyone involved, but in this specific situation the default was the right call. #USOpen
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) September 6, 2020
A few hours later, Djokovic posted an emotional apology, in both English and Serbian, on his Instagram account. “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 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. I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. 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.”
Djokovic’s exit – the latest twist in this highly unusual tournament, the first major played during the pandemic – not only halted his progress toward a possible 18th Grand Slam title (which would have had him just two short of Federer’s 20th), but also guaranteed that tennis will have a first-time Grand Slam champion at the end of next Sunday’s final. As Brad Gilbert tweeted soon after the Djokovic ouster, “massive opportunity now for all.”
For the past few years, the tennis world has waited for someone from the new generation of players — among the Dominic Thiem, 27, Alexander Zverev, 23, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22 — to break through and challenge the Big Three at the majors, but none has been able to do so.
Thiem has come the closest, reaching the finals of the 2018 and 2019 French Open (losing to Nadal both times) and the 2020 Australian Open (losing to Djokovic). Seeded No. 2 at this year’s Open, Thiem has already defeated one former US Open champion, Marin Cilic, and looks in strong form. But he faces another talented member of this new generation, the 22-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, in his next match.
Zvervev, the fifth seed, has also looked sharp so far – and easily dispatched the Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Sunday to set up a quarterfinal match with the No. 27 seed Borna Coric, 23, (who dispatched Tsitsipas in a thrilling five-setter on Friday) – but has failed to live up to either his promise or his ranking at the Grand Slams the past couple of years. Will 2020 prove to be his breakthrough?
Or will the second time be the charm for Daniil Medvedev? The 24-year-old Russian made an unexpected run to the 2019 final, pushing Nadal to five sets, and so far hasn’t lost a set in this year’s tournament. But in the next round he faces the talented young American Francis Tiafoe, 22 and increasingly seen as the future of US tennis.
Originally published on Vogue.com