Novak Djokovic's bid for a fourth U.S. Open title came to an abrupt end Sunday when he was defaulted for hitting a linesperson with a tennis ball. The number one ranked men's player was disqualified near the end of the first set of his round of 16 match against Pablo Carreño Busta.
After failing to convert three set points in the prior game, Djokovic was broken and fell behind Carreño Busta 6-5. Frustrated, Djokovic fired a ball behind him, and appeared to strike a linesperson in the throat. She staggered and fell to the ground as Djokovic tried to apologize. Djokovic then went over to the linesperson to see if she was OK.
Following a 10 minute discussion in which Djokovic tried to explain himself to the supervisor, tournament referee and chair umpire, he was defaulted. According to tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, Djokovic attempted to plead his case, at one point saying "she doesn't have to go to the hospital for this." The Serbian tennis star also asked "You're going to choose a default in this situation? My career, Grand Slam, center stage," according to Rothenberg.
"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 U.S. Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 U.S. Open," the United States Tennis Association said in a statement following the decision. "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."
Tournament referee Soeren Friemel, who ultimately made the call to end the match, explained what happened during the lengthy discussion. Friemel said that Djokovic argued that he should be allowed to continue because he did not mean to hit the linesperson.
"His point was that he didn't hit the line umpire intentionally. He said, 'Yes, I was angry. I hit the ball. I hit the line umpire. The facts are very clear. But it wasn't my intent. I didn't do it on purpose,'" Friemel said. "So he said he shouldn't be defaulted for it. And we all agree that he didn't do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and the line umpire was clearly hurt."
Djokovic chose not to address the media following the match, which will result in an additional fine. A few hours later, he posted an apology on social media.
"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," Djokovic wrote. "I'm extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong."
Following the match, Carreño Busta said he was "a little bit in shock."
"I asked the Colombian guys, who were in the crowd, if the ball hit the line umpire and I was in shock. I never expected this moment playing against Novak so it was a tough moment also for me," he said.
"When they were talking at the net, I just tried to be focused in the case that we'd have to continue playing," the Spaniard continued. "In one moment, I asked the referee what was happening because it was so long to me, this moment. I don't know it was 10 minutes or 15 minutes but I was a little bit cold. So I need to be ready in case I would have to continue. I just asked to him and then finally Novak gave me the hand. And that's it."
Djokovic had been undefeated this year coming into the match. He was seeking his 18th Grand Slam singles title, which would have put him just one behind Rafael Nadal for second most all-time. Nadal opted not to compete in this year's U.S. Open due to the. Roger Federer, who holds the record with 20 Grand Slam singles titles, is also not competing this year while he recovers from knee surgery. With Djokovic's default, this will be the first time someone other than him, Nadal or Federer will win a men's singles Grand Slam title since Stan Wawrinka won the 2016 U.S. Open.