Novak Djokovic had won every match he’d played this year. His two main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, weren’t playing in the U.S. Open. He was the only player left in the men’s draw who’d ever won a grand slam tournament. And in the fourth round, he was playing a guy, Pablo Carreño Busta, who he’d never lost to. Going into Sunday’s match, it was impossible to foresee Djokovic losing. And it was beyond impossible to imagine him losing this way.
Djokovic didn’t strike the ball all that hard, but he was angry, having just been broken by Carreño Busta in the first set. He was also incredibly careless, hitting the ball in the direction of a linesperson when it’s well known in tennis that hitting an official with a ball (or a racket or anything else) is grounds for immediate disqualification. The U.S. Open’s statement:
In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, 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 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.
Disqualifications in tennis are rare—John McEnroe’s eviction from the 1990 Australian Open is probably the most famous, prior to this one—but far from unprecedented. David Nalbandian got DQ’ed from a tournament in 2012 for kicking an advertising board into a linesperson (quite hard!) and Darian King got tossed from a minor-league event in 2014 for slamming his racket into a tarp (after which it grazed an official, quite lightly).* The most horrific recent incident came in 2017, when Canadian Denis Shapovalov (who’s a contender in this year’s U.S. Open) struck the chair umpire in the face with an irate smash, breaking a bone under the umpire’s eye.
Djokovic has some personal experience in this realm: He was nearly kicked out of the 2016 French Open when he flung his racket in the vicinity of a linesperson.
Back then, when asked about that racket-throwing incident, he got incredibly defensive.
This time, as the look on his face makes very clear, Djokovic recognized what he’d done immediately, and really, really wished he hadn’t done it.
So ends a very … eventful … few months for the top-ranked player in men’s tennis. Back in June, with most pro events cancelled, the 33-year-old Serbian staged a European exhibition tour, with fans in attendance, that ended with him and other players contracting the coronavirus.
“We tried to do something with the right intentions,” Djokovic told the New York Times, speaking of the tour he’d put together. “Yes, there were some steps that could have been done differently, of course, but am I going to be then forever blamed for doing a mistake?”
Correction, Sept. 7, 2020 : This post originally stated that David Nalbandian kicked a linesperson. He kicked a sign into a linesperson.
Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen that discusses this incident, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.