Why Novak Djokovic Was Disqualified at the US Open

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Bill Simons

WHY NOVAK WAS DISQUALIFIED: Over the years, Novak Djokovic has deservedly drawn much adulation. But now there are issues. We know what we want for the man. Novak is a superb player and a great champion who has done so much good. We hope he’s not overwhelmed by the fallout from his default and that he learns what every great athlete needs to know: the importance of understanding accountability, humility and his role in sport. 

The list of troubling chapters in Novak’s life in recent months is familiar: his deeply unaware handling of the Gimelstob matter, his comments on vaccines and poisonous water, his promotion of the ill-fated Adria Tour, his prima donna response to the early guidelines for playing the US Open and his lack of transparency as the ATP council president. To his credit, he did come to New York, and he initiated a player association that could help his mates. 

Still, what Pat McEnroe called “the flick heard round the tennis world” has changed so much. But it’s hardly the first time Novak has carelessly hit balls or thrown his racket at tournaments. At the 2016 French Open he threw a racket that nearly hit a linesman. It didn’t. Later that season at the ATP Finals in London’s O2 arena, he hit a ball into the stands. Afterward, a courageous English reporter spoke to him about the incident.

Skilled politicians are brilliant at deflecting questions, and here we see a bobbing and weaving Novak in full avoidance mode. Below is the extraordinary exchange that occurred right after the London incident. It shines a bright light onto Novak’s default this week. 

REPORTER: Going back to the end of the first set, we similarly saw you vent your frustration at Roland Garros when you threw your racket. Does it concern you that one day that will cost you dearly? If it hit someone today, is that something you’ve got to address?

DJOKOVIC: You guys are unbelievable. You’re always picking these kind of things. It’s incredible.

You keep doing these things.

I keep doing these things?

I’m just saying…

Why don’t I get suspended then?

I’m saying you were close, weren’t you? That’s what I’m saying…

I’m close? I’m still not suspended so, so if I’m not close, I’m not close.

If the ball hit a spectator it could have been serious.

It could have been, sure, or it could have snowed, it could have been snowing in the O2 Arena today. But it didn’t.

You’re not concerned about your mindset?

So I’m the only player who shows these frustrations on the court right? That’s what you want to say: I’m the only player that is showing that.

You are one of the top ranked players in the world.

So?

You show this frustration  – I’m asking is this an issue for you?

It’s not an issue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.

*****

REFLECTING ON DJOKOVIC: When you are driving 85 mph on a busy freeway, and then get into a crash, is that an accident? Yes, of course it is. But it’s not a fluke. You put yourself in a dangerous situation where a crash was likely. 

Yes, Novak’s no-look flick of a ball to the back of the court was not meant to hurt anybody. But the man should have known. For 17 years he’s brilliantly performed his craft. Ironically, he often talks about the environment and improving tennis’ ecosystem. Few know more about a tennis court and that there are people all over the place. Earlier in his match against Pablo Carreno Busta, he furiously blasted a ball into a courtside tarp – no problem. Then came an uncaring, some would say arrogant flick that changed this year’s Open, a great champion’s career, and the history of the sport. Many said it was simply an accident. It was – but it wasn’t. Novak was negligent, he was careless, and he should be held accountable.

McENROE’S TAKE: After Novak’s default, John McEnroe went on ESPN’s morning show and offered a problematic perspective. “I’d have liked to have seen them find a way around it. I’m coming from the player’s perspective, from a former No. 1’s perspective…Do you treat everyone exactly the same?…Then you’ve got to default him. But to me, in a sport where star attraction is critical, we are going through a pandemic, it’s total insanity out there, mentally people are under unbelievable amounts of stress. In a way, we are happy to be playing. It would have been nice…to try to find a way to keep him in the tournament.”

JUST A SPECK OF WHAT I COULD BE DOING: While some say Serena having her daughter with her in New York could help her relax and it could be a plus on court, Naomi Osaka’s coach Wim Fissette said Naomi’s social justice leadership is definitely helping her and giving her even more energy…It’s very important to have big personalities make a change…Role model off court; also great attitude on court. That goes together.”

Trayvon Martin’s mother told Naomi, “We thank you, from the bottom of our hearts…Continue to kick butt.” Osaka noted poignantly, “I feel I’m a vessel at this point…Hopefully I can help with anything they need…I was in shock. I was humbled…Actually I was just trying really hard not to cry…It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. I feel like what I’ve been doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing…I was a bit in shock…I’m really grateful.”

When Inside Tennis asked Naomi what her vision was of the change she wants, she replied, “Everyone says ‘peace’ all the time. I’m not sure what the world would look like if everything was peaceful, but I would hope that people help each other in times of great need.

“I also hope the older generation isn’t scared to help the younger generation. The biggest thing is I don’t want people younger than me to suffer through the things I had to suffer through. If any younger player reaches out to me and has questions, for sure I’ll answer them. I’ll try to help them out because I know how tough it is to be in that position.”

Osaka added are there were times in her matches when she thinks of Billie Jean King’s slogan, “Pressure is a privilege.” She recalled, “When I wasn’t doing too well, I wasn’t accepting the pressure. In the end tennis is won by a couple of points…where you feel the most nerves. Now I’m sort of embracing that and I’m having more fun with it. Clearly it’s doing well for me.”

SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR BANANAS: When an upset Andrey Rublev began bashing his courtside snacks, Mary Carillo called him out: “Banana abuse, don’t take it out on innocent fruit.” Earlier in the tourney, when Soon-woo Kwon was eating both bananas and Kit Kat bars, Jon Wertheim said, “That is the best and the worst of Halloween at one changeover.” 

SORTING OUT A SORT-OF CLASSIC: Pablo Carreno Busta was the sort-of winner over Djokovic, at the sort-of Grand Slam in New York. True, last night in his quarterfinal against Denis Shapovalov, the 20th seeded Spaniard sort-of tanked the fourth set of his marathon. Viewers sort-of didn’t know what to make of one of the most curious relationships we have seen between a free-flowing, free-swinging young blonde future champ and his nervous mother and coach in the stands as her sort-of out of sorts son offered sort-of unintelligible Russian expletives as he fell in a night classic that ended in a sort-of surreal silence in a sort-of empty arena.

NEW GENERATION: In the men’s game, Jimmy Connors was the first man born in the 50s to win a Slam. Mats Wilander became the first player born in the 60s to win, Michael Chang was the first from the 70s. Marat Safin was the first from the 80s. The dominance of the Big Three meant that players born in the 90s never broke through, but finally, after a 20-year gap, a player born in the 90s is guaranteed to win the Open.

THE MOTHER OF ALL SLAMS: In this, the mother of all Grand Slams, the three mothers who reached the Open quarterfinals spoke out on motherhood. Serena said she wanted to win for her daughter and added she was so impressed by Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who was playing her first tourney in three years. She said, “It shows me how tough moms are. Whenever you can birth a baby, you honestly can do anything. She played incredibly…I could barely win a match when I came back…I’m most influenced by moms. ‘Oh, God how do you do it?’ You play a match and you go home and you’re still changing diapers. It’s like a double life. It’s really surreal.” Pironkova said, “Everything in mothering helped me. You become a different person. You don’t focus on yourself that much anymore…I’m a lot more organized. I have more mental endurance, also.”

Noting that the Bulgarian had won $425,000 for reaching the quarters, Rennae Stubbs said, “Her son is going to get a couple of nice Christmas presents this year.” Chris Fowler suggested that she will now be able to afford a nanny. It’s fair to say that Victoria Azarenka has experienced mothering and tennis like few others. She was a strong advocate for mothers’ rights within the WTA and faced a painful custody battle in court. Often she couldn’t play tournaments because she wasn’t allowed to leave California with her son. Vika has spoken eloquently about how she hopes her play might inspire others not only to be great mothers, but also to follow their dreams. 

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? While broadcasting Tsvetana Pironkova’s gutsy effort against Serena today, Pam Shriver commented, “We saw something of everything. There was every shot in the book, including that slicey-dicey hack forehand and Pironkova changing the pace. The variety was so brilliant…She was playing her first tournament in three years – are you kidding me?”

GO FIGURE: Serena has gained 43 wins in majors after losing the first set, a record far beyond all others…Victoria Azarenka, who swept by Elise Mertens 6-1, 6-0, said she is looking forward to playing Serena in the semis Thursday night because she always likes playing the best. There is no one as tough mentally as Serena…2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev was down 5-1 in his first-set tiebreak against Andrey Rublev, but then won seven of eight points and went on to become the eleventh man in history to reach the Open semis without dropping a set.

PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Serena, who has twice had near-death experiences, told Rennae Stubbs, “I‘m happy to be standing here talking to you. At one point I was pretty close to not being here.” 

HAVE A NICE RUSSIAN DAY: When Denis Shapovalov offered an expletive in a foreign language, James Blake explained, “That was in Russian. I don’t think he was saying, ‘Have a nice day.’” 

NAOMI REMEMBERS: Osaka recalled that she still remembers the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 very clearly: “I remember being a kid and just feeling scared. I know his death wasn’t the first but for me it was the one that opened my eyes to what was going on. To see the same things happening over and over still is sad. Things have to change.”

QUOTEBOOK

“Sorry, Alex, we don’t mean to catch you eating. Chew with your mouth closed.” – ESPN to Zverev during his pre-match lunch

“I will say for players – when you get nervous, eat something. It helps.” – Rennae Stubbs

“It’s not her day, it’s just not her day. We all know how that feels, all of us that have been in the game.” – Chris Evert on Serena’s sluggish start

“When you get older, you just don’t jump out of bed every morning fresh as a daisy, when you have played 20, 25 years. She is going to have to find it from within.” – Chris Evert

“It’s like a great shooter in basketball. You have to shoot your way through it.” – Pat McEnroe on the suddenly errant Denis Shapovalov 

“From these moments we grow and rise.” – Novak Djokovic

“Authenticity and realness is what maybe keeps people interested in me – because I’m not scripted.” –  Vika Azarenka

“I didn’t go to anger management, but I hadn’t had a break like this since I was three.” – Naomi Osaka

“If Serena is feeling pressure, I hope she releases it and gets to 24.” – Sloane Stephens

“Definitely grateful. Definitely grateful.” – Azarenka when asked what her core attitude is

BORDERLINE MIRACLE: Jim Courier reflected on the very existence of the US Open. He said, “There have been mines in the water everywhere they looked, and that has been going on for months…It’s been a rocky, rugged road, and the fact that this tournament is taking place at all is a borderline business miracle. It’s amazing how it is going. Everyone in tennis should be grateful. It’s been an incredible achievement for tennis.”

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