Novak Djokovic was thrown out of the US Open in sensational circumstances on Sunday night when he inadvertently struck a line judge with a dead ball towards the end of the first set of his fourth-round match against the Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta.
The world No 1, who appeared to hit the ball away casually and with no great force, was distraught as he comforted the woman after she had collapsed in a coughing fit holding her throat. He then engaged in a fruitless 10-minute discussion on court with the tournament referee, Soeren Friemel.
Friemel told Djokovic that, according to the grand slam rules of conduct, he had no choice but to default him. The bewildered Serb, an overwhelming favourite to win the title and unbeaten in 26 matches this year, walked quietly from Arthur Ashe Court.
It left the small gathering of players and officials in the near-empty arena shocked and confused, as well as a television audience that included his wife and son, who had waved to him on a video screen from their home in Monte Carlo before the start of the match.
Watching in the Prime TV studio was Tim Henman, who infamously was disqualified for inadvertently striking a ballgirl during a doubles match in 1995. He said: “The tournament referee had no choice, according to the laws.” The former British No 1, Greg Rusedski, said: “I’m absolutely shocked. I never saw this coming.”
The sequence of events blew the silence apart. Djokovic, who had looked in control for the first 40 minutes, failed to convert three set points at 5-4, then lost six points in a row, fell while chasing down a wide forehand and jarred his shoulder at 5-all, 0-15.
They resumed after he received on-court medical treatment but Djokovic still looked out of sorts and Busta broke him to 15. The frustrations seemed to well up inside Djokovic and, swivelling slowly, he hit a dead ball with no great force that seemed to strike the official in the throat.
She fell instantly and made worrying choking noises. She clearly was in distress and Djokovic rushed to her side and apologised as court officials, including the chair umpire, Aurelie Tourte, helped her to her feet.
As Carreño Busta sat on his chair, bemused, Djokovic and Friemel chatted, amiably at first before the player became more agitated as he realised he was about to be thrown out of the tournament.
There are no certainties in sport, least of all tennis, which has thrown up several surprises at the US Open and elsewhere in this craziest of seasons, but Djokovic, who was motoring through the field after losing the first set against Kyle Edmund in the second round, looked perfectly placed to win his fourth US title and 18th slam. That would have put him one behind the absent champion, Rafael Nadal, and within two slams of the record of Roger Federer, who has been recuperating from knee surgery on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
It had all started so well for Djokovic, who was cruising in high-quality early exchanges. Mixing rasping forehands and backhands up the line, drop shots and chips, he nagged away at Carreño Busta’s defence, which looked like cracking under the pressure of nine aces. But he held his nerve as the match descended into chaos.
The relevant law reads: “Players shall not at any time physically abuse any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site. Violation of this Section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000 for each violation.
“In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warmup), the player shall be penalised in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule … 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 Offence of ‘Aggravated Behaviour’ and shall be subject to the additional penalties hereinafter set forth. For the purposes of this Rule, physical abuse is the unauthorised touching of an official, opponent, spectator or other person.”
It was all an eerie reprise of the drama that engulfed Djokovic at this stage of the tournament last year, when he was forced to retire against Stan Wawrinka with a shoulder injury, a surrender that did not go down well with the Flushing faithful. There were none there on Sunday night in the fan-free environment of the Billie Jean King Center but the noise will resonate for a little while to come.
The only Spaniard to have beaten Djokovic beside Nadal is Fernando Verdasco, 15 years ago, when he was still finding his way at the highest level. Carreño Busta, 27th in the world and seeded 20 after several withdrawals, hardly expected to be his next Spanish conqueror in such bizarre circumstances.
Djokovic arrived in New York with a 26-0 log for the year, 29-0 since the Davis Cup Finals last November, and an aura similar to the one that surrounded him in 2011, his summer of awe. He tested positive for coronavirus after his doomed Balkans exhibition tour and started this tournament with a minor neck problem that his tumble might have exacerbated.
Among the many peers and rivals watching from the executive suites around the near-empty court were Andrey Rublev, who plays on Monday, and Dominic Thiem, who is also up on the other side of the draw and pushed Djokovic to five sets in the only slam final to be decided this year, in Melbourne. They looked as stunned as the player himself.