On Sunday, Sept. 6, at the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic became the first No. 1 ranked tennis player disqualified from a Grand Slam singles tournament. Down 5 games to 6 in the first set of his match against No. 20 Pablo Carreno Busta, Djokovic struck a ball in frustration that inadvertently wound up hitting a line judge in the throat. As strange as the event was, it made sense.
The disqualification marks the end of an already turbulent summer for Djokovic. Back in April he joined the ranks of a growing pantheon of pseudoscience-toting, athlete conspiracy theorists by stating that water is affected by human emotion and expressing his opposition to vaccines.
In June, the men’s No. 1 received criticism for hosting a tournament in Croatia in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most sports were shutting down or severely limiting their operations, Djokovic put on an exhibition event that was criticized for not following proper protocol.
The tournament, called the Adria Tour, had the intention of showcasing players across the Balkans while providing participants with income during tennis’s hiatus. Neither social distancing nor masks were enforced. Stadiums were filled at full capacity and players mingled freely.
On Tuesday, June 23, Djokovic apologized, announcing he and his wife, Jelena, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
In August, Djokovic announced, alongside world No. 92 Vasek Pospisil, the creation of a new players association. The new association would operate similarly to a union and aims to give a voice to lower-ranked players. In Pospisil’s resignation from the current Association of Tennis Professionals, he stated, “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to have any significant impact on any major decisions made by our tour.”
Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer have discouraged players from joining the new association and many have criticized it for its exclusion of female players. Former No. 1 Andy Murray stated that he would not consider joining until women were included.
“I feel like that would send a much more powerful message, personally, if the WTA were on board with it as well,” Murray told The New York Times. “That’s not currently the case. If those things changed in the future, it’s something that I would certainly, certainly consider.”
Djokovic has become a pillar of the tennis world. For many, he was a much-needed change of pace from the redundancy of Federer and Nadal’s dominance. Now he is just as much of a staple in men’s tennis as his successful contemporaries, but his wild card status is more akin to lesser players.
Perhaps it is unfair to measure Djokovic against the spotless image of his peers. Federer maintains a near inhuman balance between being a style icon, family man and the best tennis player of all time. We can either hold Djokovic to that unrealistic standard or accept that Federer is too good for this world (we respect the GOAT in this house).
Djokovic holds 17 Grand Slam singles titles, compared to Federer’s 20. This is what likely hurts most about the disqualification. Djokovic told The New York Times that chasing Federer’s record was “of course” a large factor in his decision to attend the tournament.
“One of the reasons why I keep on playing professional tennis on this level is because I want to reach more heights in the tennis world,” he said.
Djokovic had won five of the last seven singles titles, which gave him good odds to win another. After Federer and Nadal decided to skip the U.S. Open altogether, Djokovic had a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between himself and the two stars. Instead, he would be sent home in the fourth round.
After his disqualification, Djokovic apologized via Instagram. “This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” he said. “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.”
He went on to add, “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 apologise to the US Open tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour. 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.”
Novak Djokovic will always be a complex figure in the sports world. He is only just behind Federer and Nadal in terms of professional accomplishments but his consistently strange antics may prevent him from being respected in the same way.
Not that this has ever been the goal. Djokovic has been very clear that his only job is dominance on the court. But he does aim to learn from his disqualification.
“I’m working mentally and emotionally as hard as I am physically, trying to be the best version of myself on the court, off the court,” Djokovic said in his first press conference since the U.S. Open. “I understand that I have outbursts and it’s the personality and kind of player that I have always been. Obviously I went through ups and downs in my career, managing to control my emotions more or less. But you’re alone out there, it’s a lot of intensity, a lot of pressure, and you have to deal with all of that.”
Of the disqualification, he added, “The rules are clear when it comes to that,” Djokovic said. “I accepted it, and I had to move on.”