Which are the most famous, or rather, infamous disqualifications in tennis history?
Before Sunday night, the options would have been either Grand Slam champions John McEnroe or Andre Agassi or perhaps the viral Nick Kyrgios antics. But with Novak Djokovic’s sensational exit from US Open in the fourth round, tennis had the biggest disqualification in history.
The world No 1 – unbeaten in 2020 with 26 wins and four titles – was defaulted from the Grand Slam for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball in anger. With his serve broken at 5-6 in the first set against Pablo Carreno Busta, the top seed hit a ball in frustration and it caught the line official on the throat, the impact knocking her down. After a discussion that lasted close to 12 minutes, Djokovic exited the court and the US Open leaving the tennis world in shock.
Djokovic is not the first person to be defaulted for injuring an official, but he is certain to go down as the most dramatic for the occasion and implications. Here’s a list of tennis’ famous match defaults, both intentional and accidental.
John McEnroe – 1990 Australian Open
A ‘Superbrat’ known for his own-field tantrums, as much as for perhaps his titles and success, John McEnroe had to be top in this list. He was defaulted from a Grand Slam as well, for unsportsmanlike conduct… all because he didn’t know the rules had changed and three offenses led to disqualification now.
He was playing Mikael Pernfors in the fourth round when he glared at an official who he thought had given him a bad call. Intimidating a linesperson was just his first warning, but it was followed by a point penalty for smashing his racquet after a poor point, and then defaulted for arguing with the umpire, supervisor as well as the tournament referee. He later admitted he was unaware that the previous year’s four-step process to default had been changed to a new three-step rule. Nonetheless, he was out of a Grand Slam for his terrible behaviour.
Andre Agassi – 1996 and 1999
American Andre Agassi was often the wild child of tennis in his younger days, he was defaulted at least two times in his career. The one-time coach of Djokovic was disqualified from a match in 1996 and 1999 for unsportsmanlike verbal and physical conduct.
In 1996, he was defaulted at the RCA Championships in Indianapolis after a row with the umpire. In his second-round match against the Canadian Daniel Nestor, he had won the first set but was broken in the second when he hit the ball into the stands. After a ball abuse warning, he was heard swearing at the official and the ATP supervisor was called who ruled a default.
“I got a warning; then he went straight to default. I felt I had an argument for not getting a point penalty. It’s something I’ve said a thousand times and today they decide that I crossed the line,” Agassi was quoted as saying by The Independent.
In 1999, at the Sybase Open, he was defaulted for the second time in his career for a series of profanities according to AP news.
The report stated that Agassi was leading by a set but trailing in a second-set tiebreaker against 120th-ranked Cecil Mamiit, when he was warned for audible obscenity. Linesman Al Klassen is said to have complained to the chair umpire and Agassi repeated it again till he was defaulted.
Agassi said the curses were directed at himself but that didn’t count. “The words I used weren’t singling him out at all. To default because one linesman thinks I’m making something personal with him is a bit of a stretch. I wasn’t even making eye contact with the linesman,” he said.
Tim Henman, Jeremy Bates and Jeff Tarango – 1995 Wimbledon
Before he became a legend at the tournament, a young Tim Henman and Jeremy Bates became the first players in the Open Era to be defaulted from Wimbledon.
The 20-year-old was playing doubles with Bates and after a missed chance at 1-1 in a fourth set tiebreaker, he smacked the ball he had in hand and it hit a ball kid Caroline Hall. Both the ball kid and player were in tears as the doubles team was defaulted soon after. He later apologized and presented the ball girl with a bouquet of flowers.
Incidentally, at the other end of the net in that match was Jeff Tarango who at the same tournament walked out of his singles third-round match accusing chair umpire Bruno Rebeuh with corruption.
According to tennis.com, Tarango was serving down break point in the fourth game of the second set when his ace was called out. The call was corrected but he was asked to replay the point which led to a row with the umpire and the crowd, supposedly still sore about Henman and Bates. The code violation escalated the controversy and he walked off. Later, his wife Benedicte said she had slapped Rebeuh after her husband walked off the court.
David Nalbandian – 2012 Queen’s
The 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian is the only player to have gotten disqualified in an ATP final.
In the second set of the Queen’s final against Marin Cilic, the Croatian broke for a 4-3 lead. Even before his shot was called out, an enraged Nalbandian kicked an advertising board. The board was right below the lineman’s chair and came undone to hit the official, who began bleeding from a cut in his shin. The trophy was then handed over to a young Cilic.
Nalbandian apologized saying, “I know that I made a mistake, 100. If I have to pay for what I did, it’s perfect, I agree. I made a mistake and I apologize and I feel very sorry for the guy. I didn’t want to do that.”
Denis Shapovalov – 2017 Davis Cup
Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who progressed to his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the 2020 US Open, can probably empathise with Djokovic the best, having been in the exact same situation as a 17-year-old in 2017.
The incident happened in the deciding fifth rubber for Canada against Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the first stage of the World Group in 2017. Edmund had broken Shapovalov’s serve to lead 6-3, 6-4, 2-1 when frustration got the better of the young man and he hit the ball in the stands, only to catch French umpire Arnaud Gabas smack in the eye.
The official escaped serious injury and Shapovalov was disqualified and Britain won the tie. He was fined $7,000 (Rs 44,777) for the incident even though it was deemed to be unintentional.
“Luckily he was OK but obviously it’s unacceptable behaviour from me,” rued Shapovalov. “I just feel awful for letting my team down, for letting my country down, for acting in a way that I would never want to act. I can promise that’s the last time I will do anything like that. I’m going to learn from this and try to move past it.”
Nick Kyrgios – 2019 Italian Open
Often termed as this generation’s McEnroe, Nick Kyrgios is no stranger to controversial behaviour.
He has been penalised multiple times for his words and deeds on the court and at the 2016 Shanghai Masters was handed a ban for leaving the court midway through a match against Mischa Zverev. But at the 2019 Italian Open, he was pushed to a more physical outburst.
The Australian was serving at 1-1 in the third set when the referee gave a point against him for unsportsmanlike conduct for swearing. The world No 36, having already been handed a code violation earlier in the match, was now handed a game penalty.
His response was to smash his racket on the court, argue with the line judge, kick a water bottle before throwing a chair on to the court. He then packed his bag and stormed off the court. Kyrgios defaulted the match with Casper Ruud winning 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 2-1 to advance to the third round. He later apologised on Instagram.