Novak Djokovic’s default from the United States Open after hitting a line judge in the neck with a ball that he struck toward the back of the court in frustration is perhaps the most costly one in tennis history.
It fell under the Grand Slam rule book’s definition of “physical abuse,” which states that players “shall not at any time physically abuse any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site.”
The rules subject a player to a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation of this rule, with the possibility of escalation if it is deemed a “major offense.”
“In circumstances that are flagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious, a single violation of this section shall also constitute the major offense of ‘Aggravated Behavior’ and shall be subject to the additional penalties hereinafter set forth,” the rule book says.
At its harshest, “aggravated behavior” can trigger “a fine of up to $250,000 or the amount of prize money won at the tournament, whichever is greater, and a maximum penalty of permanent suspension from play in all Grand Slam tournaments.”
Djokovic had earned exactly $250,000 for reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
In a statement, the United States Tennis Association said: “In accordance with the Grand Slam rule book, 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 U.S. Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 U.S. Open. Because he was defaulted, Djokovic will lose all ranking points earned at the U.S. 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.”
Despite the clarity of the rules, Djokovic pleaded his case for several minutes, saying that the line judge would not need to go to a hospital. A tournament official on court responded to him that the consequences might have been different had the line judge not collapsed to the ground and stayed there for a prolonged time in clear distress.
Incidents of tennis players striking officials are rare, but not unprecedented. There were two high-profile incidents of similar defaults in men’s tennis, though none as significant as the disqualification of a top-seeded player at a Grand Slam.
In a 2017 Davis Cup match in Ottawa, Denis Shapovalov, then 17, whacked a ball in anger that struck the chair umpire Arnaud Gabas in the eye and left his vision temporarily damaged.
In the 2012 final of the Queen’s Club tournament in London, the Argentine David Nalbandian kicked a wooden box that was sitting in front of a seated line judge into his shin, bloodying the man’s leg.
With Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer not competing, and Marin Cilic and Andy Murray having lost in the first week, Djokovic’s exit leaves the tournament without any men who have previously won a Grand Slam title. There will be a first-time Grand Slam singles champion in men’s tennis for the first time since Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Djokovic is not the first decorated champion to have a tournament end in controversy. At the 2009 U.S. Open, Serena Williams was given a point penalty while down match point, ending the match, after threatening to shove a ball down the throat of a line judge who had called her for a foot fault.
At the 1990 Australian Open, John McEnroe was defaulted from his fourth-round match for profane verbal abuse of officials.