Was Novak Djokovic's US Open default justified? A look at what the rule-book says

Novak Djokovic tends to the line judge
Novak Djokovic tends to the line judge

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was defaulted from the 2020 US Open in bizarre circumstances, after he hit a lineswoman during his fourth round match against Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta. The decision by the officials to disqualify Djokovic, despite the fact that him striking the lineswoman was accidental, has caused a lot of controversy.

After failing to convert three set points on Carreno Busta's serve at 4-5, Djokovic tweaked his shoulder and was broken in the next game. Bigger trouble would ensue after the game concluded though, as the Serb swatted a ball towards the wall in anger.

Unfortunately, that ball clocked the line judge in the face and caused her visible distress, ultimately leading to a disqualification.

While Novak Djokovic did hurt the lineswoman, it was clear that he didn't intend to. That has made many wonder why he was slapped with as big a penalty as he was.

In particular, it is being questioned why the referees didn't use their discretionary powers while deciding whether the World No. 1 would be defaulted. But a closer look into the Grand Slam rule-book suggests that Novak Djokovic was rightly defaulted as per the letter of the law.

Also check out: The complete US Open 2020 Schedule

The referees deemed Novak Djokovic's act to be beyond the realm of a point or game penalty

Novak Djokovic leaves the court after being defaulted
Novak Djokovic leaves the court after being defaulted

The rule-book states:

"Players at all times should conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner and give regard to the authority of all officials."

Novak Djokovic was in clear violation of this very section of the rule, and on another day could have been penalized with the 'Point Penalty Schedule', i.e docked a point.

However, the 'Player On-site Offenses' section also has a clause for 'ball abuse'. If the officials deem a player to be guilty of ball abuse to a degree that it threatens the safety of anyone in the arena, they are free to impose additional penalties - including a straight default from the match.

The pertinent section related to 'abuse of balls' reads as follows:

"Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a tennis ball within the precincts of the tournament site except in the reasonable pursuit of a point during a match (including warm-up). Violation of this Section shall subject a player to fine up to $20,000 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match (including the warm-up), the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule hereinafter set forth. For the purposes of this Rule, 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."

Further, the method of setting out the penalty is elaborated on a little further down, with a clear provision for default if the officials agree to the severity of the offense.

"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," the statute reads.

The referee in Novak Djokovic's case seemed convinced that the Serb's action of hitting the lineswoman was indeed severe enough that it warranted a default rather than a point or game penalty. The referee even consulted with the USTA officials, and drove the final nail into the coffin by announcing Djokovic's disqualification.

The 33-year-old tried appealing against the decision on the court, doing his best to convince the referee that he didn't intend to hurt the lineswoman. But the referee was unmoved, and Djokovic was dumped out of the tournament.

Also check out: The complete US Open Schedule 2020

Novak Djokovic's intent was not relevant to the case

World No.1 Novak Djokovic was not given any mercy
World No.1 Novak Djokovic was not given any mercy

Novak Djokovic was treading on thin ice already, given that he had violently swatted a ball sideways in the previous game after squandering three set points. The fans as well as the officials were aware of the frustration within the World No. 1, and his subsequent act only compounded the issue.

Live broadcast showed in vivid detail the impact of the incident right after Novak Djokovic hit the lineswoman in the throat. But while Djokovic was incessantly apologetic, and it was clear that he didn't mean to hurt her, his intent wasn't actually relevant to the quantum of penalty.

The "defaults" section of the rulebook gives the match referee the power to declare a disqualification for 'recklessly' hitting a ball. And it was clear from the footage available that Djokovic was indeed reckless in his actions.

The US Open later confirmed that the default was due to Djokovic's action of hitting the ball with 'negligent disregard of the consequences'. They issued the following tweet in the aftermath of the incident, clarifying the position of the match officials:

There were others on Twitter too who pointed out that the result is the only relevant matter in such cases, rather than the intent.

Going by the rules and their customary interpretation, it seems pretty clear that there was no way Novak Djokovic could've avoided a disqualification. In fact, he is not the first player to be defaulted in this manner; the likes of Tim Henman, David Nalbandian and Denis Shapovalov have faced a similar fate in the past, even though they didn't intend to hurt anyone either.

There could be other subjective interpretations of how the situation might have played out if Novak Djokovic had been shown a little leniency. But the referee didn't show leniency, and only saw the end result: that the lineswoman was hurt by the Serb.

At the end of the day, the referee was well within his rights to default Novak Djokovic. And that's exactly what he did.

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Edited by Musab Abid
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