Novak Djokovic was defaulted at the 2020 US Open, but does Stefanos Tsitsipas being spared at Wimbledon suggest he was treated unfairly?
For all of the brilliant tennis on show in the Stefanos Tsitsipas v Nick Kyrgios match at Wimbledon, we have all come away from it talking about the drama.
It was a bad-tempered match with each player clearly getting under the others’ skin and neither bothering to hide it.
There was, though, one incident in the match worthy of a much closer look, because it was remarkably similar to perhaps the most controversial moment in modern tennis history.
At the 2020 US Open, Novak Djokovic was defaulted for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball. In this match, Stefanos Tsitsipas hit a ball into the crowd in almost identical circumstances and fashion and saw no real consequence.
It definitely felt like a bit of a head-scratcher at the time, so we thought we’d look at it more closely.
The Djokovic incident
I don’t think anyone needs much of a recap about what happened to Novak Djokovic at the US Open.
Having just lost his service game to go 5-6 down in the first set against Pablo Carreno Busta, Djokovic took a spare ball out of his pocket and hit it towards the back of the court without looking.
There was no intent to hurt anyone, but it struck a line judge and he was quickly defaulted from the competition.
The Tsitsipas incident
Playing against Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, and after losing the second set, Tsitsipas hit a ball into the crowd.
There are a couple of key differences between this and the Djokovic one. For starters, replays suggest he was looking at where he was hitting it, and it didn’t directly strike anyone. Kyrgios, though, claims it did indirectly.
“If that had been me, I’d have been hauled out of the tournament,” Kyrgios said after the match.
“What do you think? Why was he still on a court for hitting a spectator? He smacked a ball off the wall into a spectator’s head. He apologised but is that okay?"
‘By the Book’
The best place to start here is probably by looking at why exactly Novak Djokovic was defaulted from the US Open, or at least the reasons that were given at the time.
Shortly after Djokovic was ejected from the tournament, the US Open published an article on their own website entitled: ‘By the Book: Understanding the rule behind Djokovic’s default.’ That gives us a very good starting point here.
“Based on the facts that the ball was hit angrily, recklessly; that it went straight at the line umpire's throat; that the line umpire was clearly hurt and in pain, the decision was made that Novak [Djokovic] had to be defaulted," US Open referee Soreen Friemel said.
"The facts were discussed and explained by the chair umpire and the Grand Slam Supervisor," Friemel said. "In this situation, it is especially important that we are 100 percent sure what exactly happened.
“The facts were established, and then I had to speak to Novak Djokovic, [to] give him the chance to state his point of view.
"His point was that he didn't hit the line umpire intentionally. He said, 'Yes, I was angry, I hit the ball, I hit the line umpire, the facts are very clear, but it wasn’t my intent, I didn’t do it on purpose,' so he said he shouldn’t be defaulted for that.
“We all agree that he didn't do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and that the line umpire was clearly hurt."
‘The ball was hit angrily, recklessly’
An important fact seems to be that everyone ‘agreed’ that there was zero intent to hurt anyone on Djokovic’s part. That’s important because, ultimately, it made no difference in the decision.
If we refer to the Grand Slam Rule Book, this is covered in Section N of Article III, and it says the following.
“Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a tennis ball within the precincts of the tournament site except in the reasonable pursuit of a point during a match (including warm-up).
“For the purposes of this Rule, abuse of balls is defined as intentionally hitting a ball out of the enclosure of the court, hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.”
Clearly, both Djokovic and Tsitsipas were guilty of breaking that rule and can have few complaints about being pulled up on it. Both were knowingly hitting the ball towards people without really thinking about the consequences.
The USTA confirmed this with regard Djokovic in their own statement, which read: “For the purposes of this Rule, abuse of balls is defined as intentionally hitting a ball out of the enclosure of the court, hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.”
There is absolutely no question that if Djokovic was guilty of it, which he was, then so was Tsitsipas. Conversely, if Tsitsipas was not guilty of it, then why was Djokovic?
'Djokovic committed a singularly egregious act’
The US Open started their ‘By the Book’ explanation by stating, quite clearly, that Djokovic had ultimately been defaulted for ‘a singularly egregious act.’
Ordinarily, offences such as ball abuse as described above would go through the accumulation of code violations.
There is precedent of that at Wimbledon this year, when Alejandro Davidovich Fokina ultimately lost match point in his match for hitting a ball out of the court in frustration. With that offence he had accumulated sufficient code violations to warrant a point penalty, which is what he received.
As the US Open explained with Djokovic, though, ‘the Point Penalty Schedule may be bypassed in favour of an immediate default.’
At this point, we start moving into Section Q of Article III of the Grand Slam rule book, which brings it into the realm of ‘physical abuse.’
“Players shall not at any time physically abuse any official, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site.
“In circumstances that […] are singularly egregious, a single violation of this Section shall also constitute the Major Offence of “Aggravated Behaviour” and shall be subject to the additional penalties hereinafter set forth.”
The absolute key part, though, and in this case the key difference, is tagged onto the end of Section Q.
“For the purposes of this Rule, physical abuse is the unauthorised touching of an official, opponent, spectator or other person.”
In other words, because Djokovic’s ball touched someone and Tsitsipas’ didn’t, his offence was considered a major offence, while the Greek’s was not.
Let’s not forget, though, that Kyrgios claims that the spectator actually was hit. It was not direct, but he is adamant that a spectator was struck by Tsitsipas’ ball.
But is that really fair?
That was the question that was asked immediately by the whole tennis, and sporting, world following Novak Djokovic’s default in New York. To this day, there is not a consensus.
Your own opinion will, more likely than not, be shaped by your pre-existing opinion of Djokovic. By the book, the US Open had grounds to default him. There is no real debating that, but they still had to want to do it. They still had the choice to interpret it differently, as has been proven with Tsitsipas.
The frustration here is that the entirety of it lies within the interpretation of the word ‘egregious,’ because that is how they define whether or not it is a serious enough offence to bypass the Point Penalty Schedule.
The word’s definition is ‘outstandingly bad; shocking.’ There is no criteria offered by the rule book for what exactly constitutes ‘egregious,’ so it is all in the hands of the officials. It’s a judgement call and ultimately decided on opinion.
As mentioned, all the evidence suggests that the defining difference between what Djokovic was defaulted for and what Tsitsipas was not, is that the former either did not hit someone or did not injure someone.
Surely, though, that is just a technicality? All that does is reduce the whole thing down to dumb luck. Literally, the only difference between doing something fine and doing something ‘egregious’ is if you’re unlucky enough to hurt someone with the ball you ‘hit with negligent disregard of the consequences’. That is simply not good enough.
Two players here behaved in the same way. They felt frustrated and they hit a ball towards people without regard for their safety, without any intent at all to hurt anyone. However, they received vastly different treatment for it.
There was a sense at the time, certainly from Djokovic fans, that he was punished disproportionately and other players would not be treated the same. The Tsitsipas incident may have helped strengthen that case.
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