Understanding Djokovic’s frustration, but no leniency: ‘These are the rules’

The disqualification of Novak Djokovic at the US Open keeps the tennis world busy. The Serbian number one of the world hit a ball out of frustration on Sunday night and hit a line judge. There seemed to be no intention, but that didn’t matter for the judge: Djokovic was kicked out of the tournament without pardon.

“As unfortunate as it is, it’s a fair decision. As a tennis player you know that this is the risk. If you hit someone, it’s done,” says former tennis pro John van Lottum. “For a moment, a second maybe, he was unaware of the consequences. You could tell by his reaction. But it was already too late.”

Also Dries Crama, head referee of the ABN Amro tournament in Rotterdam, speaks of a justified disqualification. “These are the official rules, whether you’re number 1 or number 300. You don’t touch line judges, referees or public. And it’s an enormous example to the youth. But it’s terrible for everyone. For Djokovic, the tournament and the line judge.”

Crama herself has been a line judge for years and can well imagine the scare of the victim. “If there’s a point, that’s the instruction, look at the referee. That line judge was at halftime and never expected another ball in her direction. Fortunately, Djokovic himself reacted well towards that woman.”

Van Lottum, who played more than twenty grandslams between 1997 and 2004, was known for his explosive character on the court. But that never led to a disqualification. “I always tried to hit a ball very hard into a cloth in a controlled way, for example. One breaks his racket, the other starts shouting loudly. That’s what happens.”

As a referee, Crama regularly has to deal with tennis players expressing their frustrations. “If someone knocks the ball out for the first time, a warning usually follows. Then point loss and then game loss. But direct disqualification is also possible, but that doesn’t happen very often. At most once or twice a year, and then it’s a lot.”

Djokovic under magnifying glass

Although Djokovic was sporting in 2020 (he didn’t lose a single match until the incident at the US Open), the Serbian was under a magnifying glass. In June, for example, he organised a number of demonstration tournaments in which the corona rules were not properly observed. Several tennis players, including Djokovic himself, became infected.

In addition, Djokovic recently founded his own union for professional tennis players, separate from the players’ council of the ATP. More than sixty tennis players have now joined, but his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal expressed their disapproval.

But according to Van Lottum, all those side issues shouldn’t be directly related to this incident. “All sorts of things are now being added from earlier this year. But this really stands on its own. The bad luck for Djokovic is that he hits someone.”

“If that ball flies ten inches off the line judge, all he gets is a warning. It’s Tim Henman, the ideal son-in-law, also happened once at Wimbledon. He hit a ball back without looking, hit a ball girl, and it was the end of the game. It can really happen to the best, you see.”

Crama has not had to deal with incidents like Djokovic as a referee in Rotterdam or at the Melkhuisje. “Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often. Of course everyone knows the images of John McEnroe from the past. And indeed, gentleman Tim Henman. Then it’s the immediate end of the game, with no regard for the person.”

The decision to disqualify a player is difficult, Crama acknowledged. “We’re all human beings and we’ve all played tennis. But you have to stay within the lines. They’re super pros, they know the consequences. Iron over your heart? You can’t do that. Before you know it, you’re on a road you don’t want to go down. Objectively and honestly, that’s what you have to be as an umpire.”