"Players have been defaulted for less," said ESPN commentator Darren Cahill, as Novak Djokovic's fourth-round match with Pablo Carreno Busta came to a stunning halt.
But that didn't matter, and the most bizarre US Open ever now includes one of the most bizarre happenings in tennis history: world No. 1 Djokovic, 26-0 heading into the hard-court major and a consensus favorite to win his 18th Grand Slam title, was defaulted after a ball he struck towards the backboard hit a linesperson in the throat.
The linesperson stayed on the ground for several minutes, as the ball was hit firmly—though certainly without malice or intent:
Novak Djokovic just got disqualified from the US open for hitting a line judge in the neck.— SAVAGE BOSTON???? (@SavageBoston) September 6, 2020
???????????? wtf pic.twitter.com/PLTgDwzZ0w
An extensive discussion between Djokovic, the chair umpire and other tournament officials followed, though from the onset the decision appeared a fait accompli.
The Serb did not take part in a post-match press conference and left the US Open grounds. Later, he apologized for what happened on Instagram:
"This whole situation has left me really sad and empty," Djokovic wrote. "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. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. 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 apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. 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."
Djokovic's afternoon got off to an ominous start when he failed to convert three set points on Carreno Busta's serve at 5-4. The Serb then took an awkward fall and appeared to injure his shoulder.
After receiving a medical timeout, Djokovic was immediately broken at 15. The incident occurred a game later, with a clearly frustrated Djokovic trailing 5-6 and boiling over in the worst possible way.
"Of course I think this was not intentional," said Carreno Busta. "I don't think that any one of us, of the players, do this kind of thing intentional, you know. It's just the moment. It's just I broke him the serve, and, you know, he throw the ball.
"I think that it was bad luck, no? You cannot do this, but of course I think that Novak never, never wants to hit the line umpire."
Asked if Djokovic should have been permitted to continue playing, Carreno Busta took the same approach as the tournament officials.
"The rules are the rules," he said. "These kind of things never likes. The referee and the supervisor do the right thing, but is not easy to do it, no?"
In a statement from the USTA, the default means that Djokovic will also not receive any ranking points and prize money he would have earned at the US Open:
"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. Because he was defaulted, Djokovic will lose all ranking points earned at the US Open and will be fined the prize money won at the tournament in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident."
For additional reaction, read Steve Tignor's and Joel Drucker's latest Rally.