The way Novak Djokovic was playing on the tennis court in 2020 — before and after (even during) a the shutdown caused by a pandemic — something extraordinary had to happen for him to lose a match.

And it did.

On Sunday at the 2020 US Open, already being played in eerie circumstances in New York, the world No 1 was knocked out of the tournament. The reason? Not him playing bad tennis. Not his opponent having an incredible day. Djokovic was disqualified without even a set being complete because he hit the ball at a line judge.

The Serbian tennis star seemingly accidentally struck one of the line judges with a ball in frustration during his last-16 match against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. And just like that, in a few minutes, his quest for a 18th Major was over.

Here’s everything you need to know about the incident that has sent shock waves through the tournament:

Lead up to the match

Djokovic had extended his winning streak in 2020 to 26 when he outclassed Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in a routine third round victory. He looked as unbeatable as he did before the coronavirus shutdown and it seemed as if the 18th Major title was inevitable. The spirits were high in his camp after a tumultuous lead-up to the tournament.

How the first set was unfolding

Against the *20th seed Carreno Busta, Djokovic was doing what he does best in the first set: play efficient tennis without over-exerting himself and waiting to pounce on mistakes from his opponent. At 4-5, on the Spaniard’s serve, it seemed as if that moment had arrived. Djokovic had three set points and Carreno Busta was on the brink of losing the first set without having actually played all that badly. The set would have been over but for an incredible challenge. Down 0-40, Carreno Busta hit a forehand that was called out, but Hawkeye showed it was a hair’s breadth inside the baseline.

Frustration and medical treatment

Carreno Busta fought through that game to keep the set on serve. The frustrations were starting to show for Djokovic as he angrily smashed the ball into the side of the court.

In the 11th game of the set, Djokovic was down 0-30 when he slipped and fell on the court while landing on his left shoulder. He slumped to the court on his knees in pain, and a trainer had to come out to attend the injury mid-game.

After receiving treatment, Djokovic was striking the ball alright but 0-30 soon ended up becoming a break of serve. The Spaniard had a chance to close out the first set but as the players started to make their ways to their chairs, the moment that will be talked about for a long time unfolded.

The moment

Djokovic appeared to be looking the other way when he pulled the ball from his pocket and smacked it in the direction of the official, it hitting her full toss in the throat.

The official cried out and began gasping for air as she collapsed to the ground. Her struggle to breathe properly was clearly heard on the broadcast.

Djokovic (and the officials) immediately rushed over to her to check if she was okay. A visibly concerned Djokovic placed his hand on her back as she struggled to breathe. After a few minutes she got up and walked off the court looking dazed.

Around ten minutes of discussions then ensued between Djokovic and the tournament referee Soeren Friemel along side other officials, during which the top seed pleaded his case. He was heard saying “game penalty, set penalty, [there are] many options.”

The umpire then declared that Carreno Busta had won by default. Djokovic shook hands with his opponent before leaving the court.


What do the rules say?

Usually in a tennis match, abuse of rackets or balls or unsportsmanlike conduct result in a point penalty schedule being invoked. There are multiple sections in the official rulebook that spell out such behaviour apart from a Point Penalty Schedule.

“The first code violation is a warning, the second comes with a point penalty, and the third comes with a game penalty—with the offending player subject to default at the referee’s discretion at any time should the code be violated again thereafter. However, when a situation such as Sunday’s arises in a match, the Point Penalty Schedule may be bypassed in favor of an immediate default,” the US Open tournament website stated in a report.

The call to default Djokovic from the tournament was taken by US Open Referee Soeren Friemel who made it clear that the Serb had no intention to hurt but the rules made the decision unavoidable based on section T which states:

Section T of Article III, “On-Site Player Offenses,” of the ITF Grand Slam rulebook:

The Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors may declare a default for either a single violation of this Code or pursuant to the Point Penalty Schedule set out above (section S). In all cases of default, the decision of the Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Chief of Supervisors shall be final and unappealable. Any player who is defaulted as herein provided shall lose all ranking points earned for that event at that tournament and may be fined up to the prize money won at the tournament in addition to any or all other fines levied with respect to the offending incident.   

“Based on the facts that the ball was hit angrily, recklessly; that it went straight at the line umpire’s throat; that the line umpire was clearly hurt and in pain, the decision was made that Novak had to be defaulted,” Friemel said.

“The facts were discussed and explained by the chair umpire and the Grand Slam Supervisor,” Friemel said. “In this situation, it is especially important that we are 100 percent sure what exactly happened. The facts were established, and then I had to speak to Novak Djokovic, [to] give him the chance to state his point of view.

“His point was that he didn’t hit the line umpire intentionally... We all agree that he didn’t do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and that the line umpire was clearly hurt.”

The official rulebook is available here.

Here’s the statement from organising body USTA:

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 2020 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.    

Djokovic’s reaction

Choosing not to do a press conference, Djokovic went directly to his car and left the Flushing Meadows site in New York. The 33-year-old later posted an apology on Instagram saying he was “so sorry.”

“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 wrong. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being. I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry.”

— via Instagram / Novak Djokovic

Update: On Tuesday, Djokovic posted a message addressed to his fans after widespread reports of abuse directed at the line judge.

“Dear #NoleFam thank you for your positive messages.. Please also remember the linesperson that was hit by the ball last night needs our community’s support too. She’s done nothing wrong at all. I ask you to stay especially supportive and caring to her during this time. From these moments, we grow stronger and we rise above. Sharing love with everyone. Europe here I come.”

— via Novak Djokovic / Twitter

He’s been close before

The Career Grand Slam for Djokovic almost did not happen. At the 2016 French Open, where eventually he overcame years of heartbreak on Paris clay, Djokovic survived a moment of madness at the quarterfinal stage.

Djokovic nearly hit a line judge with his racquet in the third set against Thomas Berdych. After missing a break point opportunity, Djokovic went to slam his racquet into the ground but it slipped out, bounced awkwardly and flew behind him.

In his own words, he was lucky that his petulance did not result in an injury to the official and a disqualification for him.

Djokovic talking about the incident at 2016 French Open:

“It’s obvious what I tried to do. I threw a racquet on the ground and it slipped and almost hit the line umpire. I was lucky there. That’s all.

“I am aware that I have been lucky, and I apologised to people that have been in this particular situation with me and that could have been hurt by my racquet,” he said at the time.

“But it was never the intention. It was just an unfortunate bounce, but a fortunate ending of that scenario.”

Later that year, in the ATP World Tour finals in 2016, Djokovic was warned for unsportsmanlike conduct at the end of the first set of the opening match against Dominic Thiem. He slammed the ball roughly in the direction of his box into the stands after losing the first set before eventually winning 6-7, 6-0, 6-2. That moment of frustration brought about a tense exchange in the press conference later in London.

Q. Back to the end of the first set, we saw you similarly venting your frustration at Roland Garros, throwing your racquet. Does it concern you one day that will cost you dearly? If it hit someone...

Djokovic: You guys are unbelievable.

Q. Why is it unbelievable?

Djokovic: Because you’re always picking these kind of things.

Q. If you keep doing these things...

Djokovic:  I keep doing these things? Why don’t you get suspended then?

Q. You were close, weren’t you?

Djokovic:  I’m close? I’m still not suspended, so if I’m not close, I’m not close.

Q. If that ball had hit a spectator, it could have been serious.

Djokovic:  It could have been, yes. It could have snowed in O2 arena, as well, but it didn’t.

Q. You’re not concerned about your mindset?

Djokovic:  I’m the only player that shows his frustration on the court? That’s what you are saying?

Q. You’re one of the top-ranked players in the world.

Djokovic:  So?

Q. You are showing this frustration. I’m asking you, do you think it’s an issue for you?

Djokovic:  It is not an issue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.

— (at ATP World Tour Finals 2016)

What’s the tennis community saying?

Carreno Busta said he did not see the incident.

“I was celebrating the break with my coach,” he told reporters.

“When I heard that the line judge was on the floor I was in shock. I never expected this moment when playing Novak. I think it was bad luck.”

“I was a little bit in shock, no?” he added.

Asked whether Djokovic should have been allowed to continue to play, Carreno Busta: “Well, the rules are the rules.... The referee and the supervisor (did) the right thing, but it’s not easy to do it.”

Former players too reacted with shock at the disqualification but said officials had made the correct decision.

Four-time US Open champion Martina Navratilova said officials “had no choice” but to default Djokovic.

Indian tennis star Rohan Bopanna was one of the many to make an interesting observation about the incident. Due to the rules in place at the event that is happening behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, the outer courts do not have line judges in place with Hawkeye automated to make calls. Given Djokovic, obviously, was playing at Arthur Ashe, that was not the case. If the entire tournament had gone judge-free, this incident might not have happened.

Could this year get any more dramatic? Reactions to Djokovic being defaulted from US Open

End of the Big Three dominance

The Serbian star is one of only a handful of players to be disqualified from a men’s singles tournament at a Grand Slam since John McEnroe was infamously tossed from the Australian Open in 1990.

Djokovic had been the overwhelming favorite to capture a fourth US Open title.

His disqualification blows the men’s draw wide open and means it will crown a first-time Grand Slam winner next Sunday.

“Now it gets interesting,” said fifth seed Alexander Zverev, who described Djokovic as “very unlucky.”

“There’s no past Grand Slam champions left in the draw.

“It’s going to be one of the young guys who wins,” Zverev added after becoming the first German to reach the US Open last eight since Tommy Haas in 2007.

Djokovic had been chasing an 18th Grand Slam title at the Billie Jean King US National Tennis Center.

He was hoping to close the gap on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both absent from the tournament, in the race for the all-time men’s Slam singles title record.

Djokovic is on 17, with Nadal on 19 and Federer on 20.

And because of a surgery to the Swiss star, the decision by Nadal not to travel to New York because of the pandemic, and a bizarre moment by Djokovic has resulted in the end of the Big Three’s dominance. For the first time since US Open 2016 when Stan Wawrinka was crowned champion, the men’s singles champion at a Major will not be named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. And for the first time since Marin Cilic at US Open 2014, there will be a first-time men’s singles champion at a Grand Slam event.

Even more incredibly, for the first time in 64 Majors none of the three legends will feature in the semi-finals.

Where is that asterisk everyone was talking about before the tournament began?

(With AFP inputs)

Clarifications and corrections: The article originally mentioned Pablo Carreno Busta was unseeded at the US Open. He is the 20th seed. The error is regretted.