Djokovic in new storm
World No1’s fans turn on injured line judge
The line judge at the centre of Novak Djokovic’s US Open disqualification faced a backlash from furious fans yesterday, who claimed that she had exaggerated her reaction to being hit in the throat by a stray tennis ball.
Laura Clark, who fell to the ground gasping for breath after Djokovic had batted that ball away in frustration, received hundreds of hostile messages after a tabloid newspaper in Serbia printed her Instagram handle. Many of these messages were sickeningly abusive or threatening, while others simply consisted of the Serbian flag repeated over and again.
Clark, who was reported to have a bruised throat, did not attend the tournament yesterday. In a statement, a US Open spokesman said: “The line umpire who was struck by the ball is resting comfortably in the hotel and is under the observation of the tournament doctor. She will return to work when she and the doctor feel it appropriate.”
In an echo of the social media outcry that followed Serena Williams’s clash with umpire Carlos Ramos in this same stadium two years ago, the response to Sunday night’s events was highly polarised. The intensity and aggression of Djokovic’s hardcore supporters was alarming. But almost every former player who joined the debate agreed that the painful nature of the blow had left the officials with no alternative. Even Boris Becker, who became close to Djokovic for three years in the middle of the last decade, backed the officials.
“I’m as shocked as anybody,” Becker said. “Novak and me go way back. We call each other family. This is probably the most difficult moment in his entire professional life. He did break the rule, the decision is correct.”
In a discussion on ESPN’s TV coverage, John McEnroe expressed concern for how the incident might affect Djokovic’s career.
“The pressure just got to him I think,” McEnroe said. “Now, whether he likes it or not, he’s going to be the bad guy the rest of his career. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles it. If he embraces that role, he could recover. He’s got a lot of things going for him, but this is obviously a stain that he’s not going to be able to erase.”
Djokovic left the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre immediately after the ruling, without attending the usual press conference. He is understood to have flown back to Belgrade shortly afterwards, but he posted an Instagram message apologising for the incident.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” Djokovic 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… I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and a human being.”
Djokovic’s default ended his 26-match winning streak, which had dated back to the start of 2020, while also denying him the £188,000 he had already earned by reaching the fourth round. On top of the cancellation of his prize
money, he also received a $10,000 (£7,600) fine for unsportsmanlike conduct, and could potentially be fined again for skipping his media duties.
Further details of the decisionmaking process were revealed by Soeren Friemel, the tournament referee, who spent around 10 minutes speaking to Djokovic across the net before the players shook hands and the Serb left the court with his head bowed.
“I don’t think there was any chance of any decision other than defaulting Novak,” Friemel said. “Because the facts were so clear, so obvious. The line umpire was clearly hurt and Novak was angry. He hit the ball recklessly, angrily back. His point was that he didn’t hit the line umpire intentionally. But the ball was hit straight at the line umpire and hit the line umpire hard, so there was no other option.”
Tim Henman – who was himself disqualified from Wimbledon in 1995 in similar circumstances – suggested that “when you reflect on some of Djokovic’s press conferences over the years, he has slightly been asking for trouble”. This was a reference to previous incidents when Djokovic had come close to striking officials or fans in outbursts of frustration, and also to the way that he had shrugged off any media inquiries about the issue in the most contemptuous fashion.
Djokovic’s absence did at least create an element of uncertainty in what had previously seemed to be a one-horse race. This is the first time in grand slams since 1981 that a men’s draw has featured no former champions in the quarter-finals.
Whoever wins will not only be the first new major champion on the men’s side since 2014 – when Marin Cilic won the US Open – but also the first twentysomething to lift the title since Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2016.
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both sitting out this tournament, second seed Dominic Thiem made a strong case last night with a dominant 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 win over the fast-rising Felix Auger Aliassime, but there are sure to be more shocks and upsets to come. Jim Courier, the former world No1, was asked on Amazon Prime why Arthur Ashe Stadium produced so many dramatic events. “It’s the Bermuda Triangle of tennis,” he said.
How world No 1 lost it in New York 2