Djokovic in new storm

World No1’s fans turn on in­jured line judge

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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


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