The strangest of all United States Opens got stranger still on Sunday as Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 men’s player and No. 1 seed, was disqualified from the tournament after inadvertently striking a line judge with a ball hit in frustration.
Djokovic was defaulted when trailing 5-6 in the first set in the fourth round against Pablo Carreño Busta. He had just lost his serve after being treated for pain in his left shoulder earlier in the game.
After losing the final point of the game, he pulled a ball from his pocket and smacked it with his racket toward the back of the court. It hit the line judge, who was standing, in the throat. She squealed and crumpled to the ground, and Djokovic rushed to her side to check on her condition.
She later walked off the court, still visibly in distress, and was treated by Dr. Brian Daniels, a tournament physician. But after a lengthy discussion with tournament referee Soeren Friemel at the net, Djokovic was defaulted.
It was the latest misadventure this year for the world’s dominant men’s player, who also sparked controversy by saying he was personally hesitant to use vaccines and by organizing an exhibition tour in Serbia and Croatia without social distancing that led to several players, including himself, testing positive for the coronavirus.
It was also the latest blow to this year’s U.S. Open, which was considered unlikely to take place when New York was one of the epicenters of the coronavirus. The tournament is being held without spectators for the first time and with players and their teams tested daily and restricted to their lodging and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Djokovic was the only member of the “Big Three” in men’s tennis to play the event this year, with Roger Federer out for the season after two knee surgeries and reigning champion Rafael Nadal choosing to remain in Spain and prepare for the rescheduled French Open and other clay-court tournaments.
Djokovic only decided to come to New York last month after lengthy negotiations with tournament officials over quarantine rules. But his default deprives the men’s event of the only player remaining who has won a Grand Slam singles title.
Djokovic has won 17 major singles titles. Men’s tour officials have been eager for a new champion to emerge to challenge the dominance of the Big Three, but this was certainly not the way anyone expected it would happen.
“Players have been defaulted for less,” said Darren Cahill, the veteran coach who was sitting courtside in Arthur Ashe Stadium covering the match for ESPN. “I think the tournament made the right decision.”
Carreño Busta, the 20th seed from Spain, advanced to the quarterfinals with the default. Djokovic left Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without speaking to the news media.
“There is a rule in place for it. I think the supervisors and all of them are just doing their job but very unlucky for Novak,” said Alexander Zverev, a German player who was watching inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. He added: “I mean if he would have hit it anywhere else, if it would have landed anywhere else, we’re talking about a few inches, he would have been fine.”
The Grand Slam rules prohibit players from the abuse of balls as well as unsportsmanlike conduct and tournament officials have the authority to disqualify a player immediately if they deem a case sufficiently serious.
Players can be defaulted for “hitting a ball or throwing a racket without intent to harm” if someone is injured on the court, said Gayle David Bradshaw, a retired ATP Tour vice president for rules and competition. “In this case, there was no intent, but there was harm, and the officials had no choice but to do what they did,” he said.
In a statement, the United States Tennis Association said that because of the default Djokovic would lose all ranking points earned at this year’s U.S. Open and be fined the prize money he would have earned in addition to any fines that will be levied because of the incident.
Because of a temporary change in the ranking system to adjust to the five-month tour hiatus, Djokovic will still be able to count his results from last year’s U.S. Open in his ranking. He retired in the fourth round in 2019. Djokovic also faces a fine of up to $20,000 for skipping his mandatory post-match news conference.
Djokovic, 33, has won five of the last seven Grand Slam singles titles and had dropped just one set in his first three matches at the U.S. Open. But the first set against Carreño Busta was a tight affair, and Djokovic was testy. At one stage earlier in the set, he smashed a ball in frustration toward the side of the court, hitting no one.
But when serving at 5-5, he fell hard on the second point while shifting direction and got up wincing and grabbing at his left shoulder. He received treatment in his chair, returned to the court trailing 0-30 and then lost the game, still looking uncomfortable with his two-handed backhand and resorting to a one-handed drop shot on two occasions.
Miffed, he smacked another ball in frustration, extending his left arm in apology toward the line judge as soon as he saw she had been struck. Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, slumped in his seat in the players box in the cavernous, nearly empty stadium: seemingly aware of the implications.
Andreas Egli, a Grand Slam supervisor, and Friemel soon arrived on court to investigate the situation and discuss the incident with Djokovic and the on-court officials.
“I know it’s tough for you whatever call you make,” Djokovic said to Friemel as they talked at the net.
The incident was reminiscent of what happened to former British star Tim Henman in 1995 when he became the first player in the Open era to be disqualified from Wimbledon after striking a ball and inadvertently hitting a ball girl, Caroline Hall, in the head from close range. Henman, playing with Jeremy Bates, was defaulted during a doubles match for unsportsmanlike conduct.
In 2012, David Nalbandian, an Argentine star, was defaulted from the singles final at Queen’s Club after kicking a wooden advertising board and injuring linesman Andrew McDougall’s left leg.
But until Sunday, no world No. 1 had been defaulted in the midst of a Grand Slam tournament. The closest equivalent for shock value at the U.S. Open was in 2009 when Serena Williams, seeded No. 2, received a point penalty for threatening a line judge who had called a foot fault in her semifinal against Kim Clijsters. The penalty was assessed on match point, handing Clijsters a 6-4, 7-5 victory.
Matt Futterman contributed reporting.