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Ashe Stadium Again Turns Into an Arena of the Absurd

Since its opening in 1997, Arthur Ashe Stadium has been the site of some of the most thrilling tennis in the history of the game, matches that have gone into the small hours of the night, in front of raucous and often unruly crowds, by tennis standards.

It has also been the site of some of the strangest, most controversial moments in the sport.

On Sunday, in what has already been a strange tournament — the first Grand Slam of the Open era to be played without spectators — Ashe added another spectacle to the list, even though only a handful of people were there to see it: tournament officials defaulting the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, from his fourth-round match for hitting a ball into the throat of a line judge.

Officials did not release the name of the judge, who was treated at the tennis center after crumpling to the ground upon being struck by the ball.

Although the episode was unintentional, the rules required that Djokovic, who had just lost his serve to go down, 5-6, in the first set to Pablo Carreño Busta, be eliminated from the tournament.

Because he was defaulted, he lost all of the ranking points he earned from his first three matches in the tournament. He will also be fined the money he earned at the Open, which was $250,000, and is likely to receive an additional fine for the episode.

“The referee and the supervisor do the right thing, but is not easy to do it,” Carreño Busta said.

No one had a stranger experience of the event than Carreño Busta, who was on the other side of the net when it happened, and then waited to see if the judge was OK and whether he was going to win the match without having to hit another ball.

“I was looking to my coach, celebrating the break,” Carreño Busta said. “When I turned back again, the line umpire was on the floor. I’m very apprehensive with these kinds of things, so I was a little bit in shock.”

Kim Clijsters and Naomi Osaka probably know the feeling.

They were in Carreño Busta’s position in 2009 and 2018 for two other notorious episodes at Ashe.

In 2009, in her semifinal match against Serena Williams, Clijsters was ahead by a set and leading, 6-5, in the second as Williams served at 15-30. A line judge called Williams for a foot fault on her second serve.

Williams erupted and threatened her. The chair umpire then penalized Williams a point, ending the match, sending Williams storming off the court and Clijsters unable to celebrate an unlikely victory in her first major tournament back from the birth of her first child.

Then, two years ago, Williams was at the center of another officiating controversy when she received a code violation for receiving coaching during the second set of the final against Osaka. She thought the warning had been rescinded and then erupted when she was docked a point for slamming her racket, and then a game for calling the chair umpire a thief, demanding an apology from him in front of 22,000 fans and a worldwide television audience.

The apology never came and Williams lost the match, 6-2, 6-4.

Even before he hit the ball that hit the line judge in the throat, Djokovic had lost his temper and smashed another ball in anger into the side of the court after losing a point.

Is it something in the water at Ashe that makes players lose their composure, forcing referees and umpires to insert themselves into the outcome of the match in ways they never expected?

For several minutes after the episode, Djokovic pleaded his case to tournament officials, Soeren Friemel, the U.S. Open tournament referee; Andreas Egli, the Grand Slam supervisor; and Aurélie Tourte, the chair umpire.

“His point was he didn’t hit the umpire intentionally,” Friemel said. “He said, I hit the ball, I hit the umpire, but it was not my intent.”

A funereal anticipation descended upon the stadium. The rule, however, left no room for debate. It was only a matter of time, just a few minutes more, until Djokovic was defaulted.

“The two factors are the action and the result,” Friemel said. “The result of hitting the line umpire and her being hurt is the essential factor.”

Djokovic sped out of the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in his car minutes later without making any public statements.

“I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson in my growth and evolution as a player and a human being,” he posted on his Instagram account.

“I think he’s going to be a little bit upset about it,” said Alexander Zverev of Germany, who is now one of the favorites to win the tournament. “If he would have hit it anywhere else, if it would have landed anywhere else, we are talking about a few inches, he would have been fine.”

Then he used the words that others who are witness to strange episodes on this court have said before.

“I don’t know what to say,” Zverev said. “I’m a little bit in shock right now, to be honest.”

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