As we reach the end of an unusual US Open, it is difficult to ignore one of the most dramatic events of the past two weeks. For world number one Novak Djokovic, a moment of frustration resulted in a tournament-ending consequence. In the blink of an eye, Djokovic went from the undisputed favorite to capture the title to a spectator exiting the gates of Flushing Meadows in silence. Down 5-6 in the first set against Pablo Carreno Busta in the Round of 16, Djokovic flicked a ball behind him after losing game point… and turned around to the sound of a line judge gagging. The ball had hit her in the throat. After ten minutes of tense discussion between Djokovic and multiple officials, the 17-time Grand Slam champion was defaulted from the US Open. The USTA based this decision on the well-known rule that any Grand Slam competitor caught “hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences” is subject to default.
These are the facts. Yet countless members of the tennis community came to the defense of the top seed. Former Top 5 ranked player and Tennis Channel commentator Brad Gilbert was quick to commiserate with Djokovic. Instead of reprimanding the perpetrator, Gilbert criticized the system. “There has to be a TV screen on the umpire’s chair to look at incidentals,” he said. Former professional player and ESPN commentator Rennae Stubbs countered this point with a message that should have been abundantly clear. “The moment that you hit a ball in anger on a tennis court… if you hit somebody, you are done in a tennis tournament. There is no second guessing.”
Another upsetting reaction blamed line judge Laura Clark for stepping in the way of the trajectory of the ball. Yet Clark was moving because the game was over. Line judges are some of the bravest yet most invisible people on tour. They stand still across the net as serves are rocketed towards their heads at up to 150 miles per hour. Clark was simply doing her job. Yet she endured significant social media abuse after this event. Fans accused her of faking a reaction with the purpose of getting Djokovic defaulted from the US Open. She was so chastised that Djokovic himself pleaded with fans to come to their senses.
During the ten-minute discussion to decide his fate, Djokovic begged officials to let him continue the match despite the fact that he blatantly violated an established code of conduct. Although the USTA did not grant his wish, many quickly came to his defense. Djokovic was 26-0 on the season and a poor choice handed the world number one his first loss in 2020. Yet his record does not make Djokovic immune to the rulebook that governs professional tennis.
I am left to consider…
When did the rules stop applying to everyone?