The Djokovic disqualification and its greater impact on tennis

September 18, 2020

Dominic Thiem has officially been crowned the winner of the 2020 U.S. Open.

For only the fifth time in sixteen years, the champion of the tournament was someone other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, who are known around the tennis world as the “Big Three.” It is only the second time in that same period that none of them have made it to the finals. History was made; a new era in tennis has begun. However, three weeks ago, most people expected this to be one of the most boring tournaments in recent years. Between having no fans allowed in the stands with the current pandemic, and Nadal and Federer both announcing skipping the U.S. Open for personal or injury related reasons, it seemed it would be pretty straightforward. Djokovic had the easiest route to the title he would likely ever get, and so he was not only predicted to win, but to run away with it. It was his title to lose. 

Well, he did. He lost to his fiercest competitor, the one everyone forgot to mention: himself. 

Djokovic, who showed frustration and accidently hit a ball at a lineswoman during his fourth round match, led to him being defaulted from the tournament. Since, he has become the talk among players past and present, fans and media members alike. Let’s see how this whole situation unfolded.

When taking a longer look at Djokovic’s career and mindset, this unfortunately shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it may seem. Sure, he has never quite been disqualified before, but very few players have. In fact, he is the first player ever to be thrown out of a match in the U.S. Open since its founding all the way back in 1881. So any time someone first etches his name in a record book, whether for good or bad, it will always be heavily talked about and come with an initial degree of shock. Yet, when that first response pasess and we start to zoom out of the particular incident, it is apparent that the stage was already set a while back for something like this to potentially happen.

If we turn back the clock to 2016, Djokovic was playing in a game where he at one point angrily threw his racket to a place where it ended up reaching close to the feet of one of the ball people, although fortunately, it did not get quite that far. So after already seeing a couple of close calls in the past, he was asked by a British reporter at his post-match press conference that night about a pattern he was seeing in Djokovic’s on court behavior. The journalist asked if it concerned him at all that he could have hit someone with the racket and would have potentially ended up being suspended from the tournament. Djokovic answered with a smile, “You guys are unbelievable.” When pushed further, he went on to ask a question of his own, “Why don’t I get suspended then? I’m close? I’m still not suspended…” Hindsight is always 20/20, but maybe he would have been better served taking the reporter’s warning slightly more seriously. 

The year 2020 started off well for the world number one. He won the first grand slam of the year in Melbourne, Australia and was playing at the high level of tennis we’ve come to expect from him. Not long after though, things took a turn for the worse. Back in June, he created a tennis exhibition tour in his home country of Serbia as well as nearby Croatia. It was stated that all income received from the series would go to humanitarian organizations, showing Djokovic clearly had good-willed intentions. Because of timing, however, this was frowned upon by many. 

People shared their concerns with the risks involved because of the pandemic and lack of social distancing being carried out throughout the event. Yet he confidently went ahead with it, nonetheless, seeming relatively unconcerned about the impact of the virus hitting there. Not long after, it did. 

Djokovic himself, as well as three of his friends at the tour, tested positive for the coronavirus and the event was cancelled. He followed this up by tweeting what seemed to be a sincere apology for all the cases that arose throughout his tournament. Many critics, however, were not satisfied and continued to show it through social media. Djokvic clearly felt the harsh critique coming his way and was quick to point out it was not totally his fault. Although he felt bad about the situation, he went on to tell The New York Times, “yes, there were some steps that could have been done differently, of course, but am I going to then forever be blamed for this mistake?” That kind of response only fueled the fire of his accusers. Not being able to admit to taking responsibility certainly did not help his case.

So after this tough episode, just months before coming to play in the bubble on the grand stage in New York, he had an opportunity to put all the stress behind him and focus on what he had always done best: play tennis. Unfortunately, bowing out early in the round of sixteen through a default was not exactly what he had in mind. 

In fact his coach, Goran Ivanisvic, was reported by Sky Sports as saying, “I had all the scenarios in my head… But I didn’t have this, even in my wildest dreams, in my head.”  However, hitting a lineswoman (whose name has been kept anonymous) with the ball—even though it was most certainly an accident—did not leave the tournament officials much of a choice. 

Many people have argued that the women’s reaction was exaggerated. Whether or not this was the case, the rules according to the ITF tennis handbook are clear: “abuse of balls is defined as intentionally hitting a ball out of the enclosure of the court, hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.” 

For all of these violations, a match default is awarded. This should put to bed the question of whether the Serbian deserved to be thrown out. Whether or not he meant to hit her—almost certainly he did not, considering he wasn’t even looking in the direction in which the ball was going, or whether or not she was in as much pain as she appeared to be in: no reason to assume she wasn’t—he still would have been suspended from play in all scenarios. 

Perhaps the biggest problem was not the incident at all; everyone makes mistakes and might let emotion and adrenaline get the best of them at times. However, he also made the decision to not speak to the press after the match. As the best tennis player in the world who’s supposed to be the model for many young kids, he did not answer for his actions, once again giving off the impression of denying responsibility for his mistake. To clarify, he did apologize not long after through an Instagram post. He showed remorse for his actions and wished the lineswoman well. He said he would grow stronger and learn from this. 

Nonetheless, choosing purposely not to stand up in person (a conscious decision was made since usually all players do this after all their matches), made his social media message slightly harder to accept. The fact that he could not admit his mistake and the sorrow he felt face to face was a tough pill for many to swallow. 

A few years back, a 17-year-old Canadian player by the name of Dennis Shapovalov, had a similar incident. He hit an umpire with a ball and was disqualified, similarly to the way Djokovic was earlier this month. Yet immediately after walking off the court, he went and sat down in front of the press, facing all the cameras and knowing what kind of questions he was about to receive. He responded with the following statement: “It was unacceptable behavior from me. I feel incredibly ashamed and embarrassed for letting my team down and my country down. That’s the last time I’m going to do anything like that. I’m going to learn from it.” 

Having a statement like this from such a young player on a national stage was powerful. Having no statement made after the match by Djokivc was just as powerful, but in a different sense. You would hope and expect more from a player that has been on the tour for more than ten years and has won as much as he had. He has a profound impact on the sport, and leaving without a word after the game was not the right message to send. 

This is likely to leave a permanent mark on Djokovic’s career and could impact the direction of tennis as a whole. He will always be remembered as a champion on the court for having his 17 grand slam singles titles and counting. He has set a high bar through his success and standard of play for many young athletes. Yet, it is hard to imagine him having the same kind of glowing legacy outside of the game. Federer and Nadal are seen as icons, heroes of the sport. Not just because of the record book but because of their exemplary work as human beings. That is not to say it is impossible for him to improve and restore himself in a more positive light. He said he would learn from it, other players gave him a vote of confidence to come back stronger, while Ivanisevic, his coach, said in an article to Sportskeeda, “Novak [Djokovic] is born a winner and will come out of this even stronger and better. If he wins Roland Garros [the next upcoming grand slam tournament], which I think he can, this will be forgotten as if it never happened.”  

In the coming years, when the curtain closes on the Big Three and the era of tennis that came with them, there may be a distinction for many between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. The last few months certainly helped to increase the odds of that happening. Can Djokovic prove his coach right and revert those odds back in his favor?

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