Emotions can run high and get the best of any of us in intense situations. Keeping them in check is part of the battle.
On a tennis court, when players lose their cool, heat-of-the-moment reactions have been known to lead to the most unfortunate of outcomes: a match default. On Sunday, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic became the center of a US Open disqualification sure to be talked about in the years to come.
Here are five defaults that are remembered for being on the wrong side of history.
2020 US Open: Pablo Carreno Busta d. Novak Djokovic, 6-5 (DEF)
Coming into their fourth-round meeting, Djokovic was not only a substantial pre-tournament favorite, he was also the only man left in the draw with a Grand Slam title to his name. As well, Djokovic was 26-0 on the year, and had just won “Cincinnati in New York”—the Western & Southern Open, staged a week earlier at Flushing Meadows.
For Djokovic, his regrettable moment was the crux of a momentous few minutes. In the 10th game, leading 5-4, deuce, Djokovic first showed signs of frustration when he swatted a ball at the sideline signage boards, though no warning was given. Just three points later, he slipped in the ad court and pulled up holding his left shoulder. Djokovic would receive on-court treatment, but Carreno Busta would break at 15 to move ahead 6-5—before the three-time champion turned and smacked a ball towards the baseline. A lineswoman, who appeared not to be looking, was struck in the throat.
After a lengthy consultation with officials, where Djokovic pleaded, “She doesn't have to go to the hospital for this,” the world No. 1 was handed his fate. The USTA would explain in a statement, “In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, following his actions of intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences, the US Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open.”
As a result, Djokovic forfeited all ranking points earned, and lost an opportunity to extend his gap on No. 2 Rafael Nadal with the ATP’s “Best of 2019 or 2020” ranking structure after losing in the same stage a year earlier to Stan Wawrinka. The 33-year-old would skip post-match press, instead making his first statement on the incident via Instagram.
A portion of it read, “This whole situation has left me really sad and empty... 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 apologize to the US Open tournament and everyone associated for my behavior.”
2017 Davis Cup World Group: Kyle Edmund d. Denis Shapovalov, 6-3, 6-4, 2-1 (DEF)
A winner-take-all situation for your team is a dream scenario for some, and for Shapovalov, that call came when he was nominated to play a deciding fifth rubber for Canada against Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the first stage of the World Group in 2017. Experience appeared to be a factor for Edmund, who had helped his nation lift the trophy just two years earlier.
After falling behind two sets and trailing early in the third, then 17-year-old Shapovalov launched a ball in frustration. The trajectory was meant to go high in the stands, but instead nailed chair umpire Arnaud Gabas squarely in the left eye. Shapovalov instantly turned his attention to check on Gabas, but his negligence left referee Brian Earley no choice but to default the left-hander for unsportsmanlike conduct. The deciding rubber ended in stunning fashion for the host nation and Shapovalov received a $7,000 fine.
Thankfully, Shapovalov's unintentional strike did not damage the Frenchman’s cornea or retina. Reflecting on the incident, the teen expressed, “I'm very lucky that he is okay, because if things had gone worse, I don't think I would have been able to forgive myself and I don't think I would be able to move past it.”
Shapovalov later shared in an essay with the ATP site that he forged a friendship with Gabas.
2012 London Queen’s Club: Marin Cilic d. David Nalbandian, 6-7 (3), 4-3 (DEF)
The boot seen ‘round the world was not exactly how Nalbandian envisioned his first grass-court final since his lone major championship appearance at 2002 Wimbledon. Things were initially looking up for the clean-striking Argentine, who won the first set in a tiebreaker. The match remained on even terms, until the seventh game of the second set.
With two break-point chances, Cilic timed his cross-court forehand return brilliantly to force an error and take a 4-3 lead. Before his reply even landed long, Nalbandian channeled his self-contempt into booting a Nike advertising board surrounding a lineman’s chair. The problem? The force behind Nalbandian’s enraged kick was too much for the material, and the figurative sitting duck.
The linesman would reveal a noticeable bleeding cut on his left shin. Commentators on the match widely projected quick reactions like, “that’s it” or “we have a new champion.” And not long after, those calls were confirmed, handing the Croatian the crown.
Nalbandian would acknowledge, "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.” But also criticized the men’s tour, stating “When somebody else makes a mistake, they have to pay in the same way. Players don't feel [that is true] with the ATP… Sometimes the ATP puts a lot of pressure on the players and sometimes you get injured because you play on a dangerous surface and nothing happens.”
1995 Wimbledon: Henrik Holm/Jeff Tarango d. Jeremy Bates/Tim Henman, 6-7 (7), 6-2, 3-6, 6-6 (DEF)
Before the Oxford native carried the British mantle for nearly a decade at Wimbledon, saw fans honor his efforts through the naming of ‘Henman Hill’ and became an honorary member of the All England Club, the grass-court major was initially a place of self-inflicted misery.
As a 20-year-old, Henman made the most of a wild card in singles when he picked up his first of 43 wins at the tournament. The rising talent was also bestowed a place in the doubles draw alongside Jeremy Bates, and was primed to add to his earlier singles success until a split-second reaction cost him and his countryman.
At 1-1 in a fourth set tiebreaker, Henman served and volleyed, but Tarango’s return clipped the net. Henman, unable to make a play on the altered shot, was infuriated. Unaware that ball girl Caroline Hall was on the move, Henman smacked the ball he had in hand, drilling her ear from just a foot away. She bravely stood up and went back to her position in tears, ones that Henman would struggle to fight back after he and Bates became the first players in the Open Era to be defaulted from the event.
“It's a complete accident, but I'm responsible for my actions,” he said afterwards.
In a heartwarming exchange the following day, Henman presented Hall with a bouquet of flowers and a kiss on the cheek. Looking back on how his disqualification went down, the former world No. 4 drew parallels between his actions and Djokovic’s, reprising his words 25 years later.
“There’s no doubt it’s the right decision and it’s amazing for me to talk about this because it happened to me and pretty similar scenarios,” he told Amazon Prime. “He’s hit the ball away in frustration you’ve got to be responsible for your actions and he’s hit the line judge. So, when you look at those facts, there’s no alternative but to be defaulted.”
1990 Australian Open: Mikael Pernfors d. John McEnroe, 1-6, 6-4, 5-7, 4-2 (DEF)
Read the rulebook: it’s a simple ask but an overlooked one that has cost players in numerous ways throughout the years.
Three strikes and you’re out had only applied to baseball, thought New York Mets fan McEnroe, until one fateful day in 1990. Approaching his 31st birthday, the iconic lefty was still ranked No. 5 in the world, though he hadn’t tasted Grand Slam singles glory since the 1984 US Open. He was in good shape to get back to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park for the second successive year, until a string of code violations—and failure to do his homework—did the former No. 1 in against the Swede.
McEnroe had laid low, for his standards, until the third set, when Gerry Armstrong issued an unsportsmanlike conduct warning for the American’s attempt to intimidate a lineswoman. He brushed it off to go up two sets to one, but by the seventh game of the fourth set, the match took a 180-degree turn. Two missed forehands brought out two McEnroe racquet smashes, eliciting Armstrong to issue a second code violation for racquet abuse, resulting in a point penalty.
“It’s just a little crack, does that mean it’s abuse?” McEnroe petitioned to Ken Ferrar, Grand Slam chief of supervisors. “It’s not broken. Broken’s when you can’t play with it.”
Walking away, McEnroe uttered multiple obscenities that could clearly be heard in the stadium. Armstrong would inform the crowd, and an oblivious McEnroe, “Code violation: verbal abuse. Default, Mr. McEnroe. Game, set, match, Pernfors.”
Hands on his hips, McEnroe stood behind the baseline in disbelief, as jeers and cheers echoed throughout the packed crowd. In his post-match press conference, the future International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee would confess his ignorance, not realizing the match-default process he had grown accustomed to had been reduced from four to three steps.
“I’m certainly more aware of it now.”