There can be no questioning the legitimacy of Novak Djokovic’s sensational default from the US Open, despite an equally clear lack of intent.
But what a heavy price for a churlish fit of temper.
The first world No.1 to be disqualified from a major had won five of the past seven and was a raging favourite to claim the 18th of his career – behind only the voluntarily absent Rafael Nadal (19) and the injured Roger Federer (20).
Beyond his feverishly – sometimes aggressively – loyal Serbian supporters, Djokovic has rarely been a crowd favourite, and a coronavirus-compromised grand slam tournament being played in empty stadiums for the first time is now, stunningly, also being played without Djokovic.
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… https://t.co/UL4hWEirWL
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) September 6, 2020
Unbeaten in his previous 26 matches in 2020, the 33-year-old top seed was trailing Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 when, frustrated after failing to convert three set points two games earlier, he plucked a spare ball from his pocket and whacked it towards the baseline, where it hit an unsuspecting line judge in the throat.
Clearly distressed, she crumpled to the court.
Rightly concerned, for several reasons, Djokovic went to her aid. Despite pleading with Friemel and grand slam supervisor Andreas Egli for more than 10 minutes, the inevitable followed.
The top seed then compounded his accidental blunder with a deliberate one: Fleeing Flushing Meadows without fulfilling his media obligations.
Thus, a mandatory $US20,000 fine will be added to other potential penalties and the forfeiture of his $US250,000 prizemoney.
Trifling amounts for a man with career earnings of $196 million. Wrist meet slap.
Growing tally of missteps
The opportunity and reputational costs are what will hurt; the latter adding to a growing tally of missteps taken by a senior figure and leader, at such a precarious time for his sport.
Pre-tournament, the news broke that Djokovic – then the president of the ATP Player Council – was at the forefront of a breakaway group seeking to form a new player association.
“Tone-deaf,” some labelled it, with Federer and Nadal calling for unity and proud feminist Andy Murray also lamenting the snub to the women’s tour.
Before that came Djokovic’s much-criticised “anti-vaxxer” stance, and the wildly-misjudged Adria Tour exhibitions in June that eschewed social distancing and saw bare-chested players cavorting at nightclubs.
There were, well, positives – notably, the subsequent cluster of COVID-19 tests.
Now this. Given the prevalence of ball and racquet abuse in tennis, and considering the contact had been inadvertent there is a school of thought (see Alexander Zverev) that Djokovic was “unlucky”.
Others suggest his luck finally ran out, noting there had been a similar display of anger earlier in the set, and multiple others in the past involving ball-belting and racquet-throwing incidents that were fortunate not to end the way this one did.
Embarrassing, though? Certainly. And while the line judge required medical attention, one suspects that, given the stakes and the immense global fallout, Djokovic’s self-inflicted pain will end up being far more acute.
The eventual statement of apology acknowledging his wrongdoing was inadequate, the condemnation swift.
Nick Kyrgios, naturally, weighed in, asking his 400,000 Twitter followers how long he would have been banned had he been in “jokers” (sic) place? Pick a penalty: five, 10 or 20 years.
American Tommy Paul’s reply that: “We’d be bailing you outta jail right now” was greeted with much hahahaha mirth by Kyrgios, who is well accustomed to being sent to the naughty corner in a sport with poor behaviour is endemic and punishments – especially given the money on offer – often woefully inadequate.
But not this time.
The penalty is severe, but mandatory, according to the rules.
By petulantly whacking a ball in anger, and risking the clear-cut consequences if someone was hurt as a result, the man so many thought could not be beaten has ended up defeating himself.