NEW YORK -- Top-seeded Novak Djokovic was defaulted from his fourth-round match on Sunday at the US Open after a tennis ball he hit in anger struck a line judge in the neck.
As he walked to the Arthur Ashe Stadium sideline for a changeover, trailing Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 in the first set, Djokovic -- who was seeded and ranked No. 1 and an overwhelming favorite for the championship -- angrily smacked a ball behind him. The ball flew right at the line judge, who dropped to her knees at the back of the court and reached for her neck.
During a discussion of about 10 minutes near the net involving chair umpire Aurelie Tourte, tournament referee Soeren Friemel and Grand Slam supervisor Andreas Egli, Djokovic appeared to be pleading his case. Eventually, he walked over to shake hands with Carreno Busta.
Tourte then announced that Djokovic was defaulted, the tennis equivalent of an ejection.
Djokovic left the tournament grounds without speaking to the media. In an Instagram post, he apologized to the line judge, saying he didn't intend to hit her and that he is going to "turn all this into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being."
View this post on Instagram
This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. 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'm not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being. I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior. I'm very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I'm so sorry. Cela ova situacija me čini zaista tužnim i praznim. Proverio sam kako se oseća linijski sudija, i prema informacijama koje sam dobio, oseća se dobro, hvala Bogu. Njeno ime ne mogu da otkrijem zbog očuvanja njene privatnosti. Jako mi je žao što sam joj naneo takav stres. Nije bilo namerno. Bilo je pogrešno. Želim da ovo neprijatno iskustvo, diskvalifikaciju sa turnira, pretvorim u važnu životnu lekciju, kako bih nastavio da rastem i razvijam se kao čovek, ali i teniser. Izvinjavam se organizatorima US Opena. Veoma sam zahvalan svom timu i porodici što mi pružaju snažnu podršku, kao i mojim navijačima jer su uvek uz mene. Hvala vam i žao mi je. Bio je ovo težak dan za sve.
Asked whether Djokovic should have been allowed to continue to play, Carreno Busta shrugged and replied, "Well, the rules are the rules. ... The referee and the supervisor [did] the right thing, but it's not easy to do it."
Indeed, the United States Tennis Association issued a statement saying that Friemel defaulted Djokovic "in accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, following his actions of intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences."
The USTA went on to say that Djokovic forfeits the ranking points and $250,000 in prize money that he earned in the tournament, "in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident."
"Novak was angry. He hit the ball recklessly, angrily back. And taking everything into consideration, there was no discretion involved," Friemel said. "Defaulting a player at a Grand Slam is a very important, very tough decision. And for that reason, it doesn't matter if it's on Ashe, if it's No. 1 or any other player on any other court. You need to get it right.''
Friemel also confirmed that Djokovic faces a $10,000 fine for the incident and that Djokovic's intent was taken into consideration when it came to the fine. Had Djokovic intended to injure the line judge, the penalty would have been harsher, Friemel said.
"We would have done the same decision on any other court with any other player," he added.
Djokovic likely will face an additional fine for not attending his postmatch news conference after he left the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without taking questions.
This is the latest example of Djokovic finding himself at the center of the tennis world for a reason other than his best-in-the-game returns, can't-miss groundstrokes and body-contorting defensive prowess.
Djokovic tested positive for the coronavirus -- as did his wife, one of his coaches and other players -- after participating in a series of exhibition matches with zero social distancing that he organized in Serbia and Croatia in June. Then, on the eve of the US Open, he helped establish a new association that he says will represent men's tennis players.
Djokovic began the day 26-0 this season, with an unbeaten run that extended to his last three matches of 2019. He had won five of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments to raise his total to 17, closing in on rivals Roger Federer (a men's-record 20) and Rafael Nadal (19).
With reigning US Open champion Nadal, who cited concerns about traveling amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Federer, who is sidelined after two knee operations, not in the field, the 33-year-old Djokovic was expected to claim a fourth trophy in New York.
It all came apart suddenly Sunday, even if it appeared that Djokovic did not intend to hit the line judge. He wasn't looking in her direction when his racket made contact with the ball, and there was concern on his face as soon as he realized what happened.
Players who hit a ball in anger and make contact with an on-court official have been defaulted in the past.
In 2017, Denis Shapovalov -- the 21-year-old Canadian who is Carreno Busta's next opponent -- was defaulted from a Davis Cup match against Britain when he accidentally hit the chair umpire in the face with a ball. At Wimbledon in 1995, Tim Henman hit a ball into the head of a ball girl and was defaulted from a doubles match.
"I've been through that myself. Honestly, I feel awful for him. I feel terrible for everybody. Nobody wants to be in this situation,'' Shapovalov said after beating No. 7 David Goffin 6-7 (0), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 on Sunday. "Just a fluke. It's accidents like this that happen. Same thing with me.''
"I think the supervisors and all them are just doing their job, but very unlucky for Novak," said Zverev. "If it would have landed anywhere else -- we're talking a few inches -- he would have been fine."
Among the many oddities about the 2020 US Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since the onset of the pandemic, is that there are no spectators.
Another is that only the two largest arenas -- Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadium -- have full complements of line judges making calls at matches. At other courts, chair umpires are aided by an electronic line-calling system.
Djokovic's mood had soured over the preceding few minutes Sunday. In the prior game, he wasted three consecutive break points, and after the last, which Carreno Busta won with a drop shot, Djokovic whacked a ball off a courtside advertising sign.
Then, on the second point of what became the last game at this year's US Open for Djokovic, he stumbled while chasing a shot and fell to the ground, clutching his left shoulder.
Play was delayed for a few minutes while a trainer checked on him.
On the second point after play resumed, Carreno Busta hit a passing winner to break Djokovic's serve.
That's when Djokovic got himself into trouble.
His departure means there is no man left in the field who has won a Grand Slam singles title. Whoever emerges as champion will be the first first-time major trophy winner in men's tennis since 2014, when Marin Cilic won the US Open.
Each of the past 13 Grand Slam trophies has been won by a member of the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
"Going to be a new Grand Slam champion, [that's] all I know. No Grand Slam champions left in the draw. Now it gets interesting," said Zverev, who beat Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 on Sunday. "Now I think is the time when it gets really interesting.''
Since the start of 2005, the Big Three have won 52 of the 61 majors. The most recent major in which no member of the big three was among the four semifinalists was the 2004 French Open.
"This is definitely not the way we wanted to have a new Grand Slam champion," Shapovalov said before noting, "It's been getting pretty boring with these three guys winning every tournament."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.