Novak Djokovic returns a shot to Pablo Carreno Busta during the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sunday in New York. Djokovic is out of the tournament after hitting a line judge with a ball. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic was kicked out of the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball after dropping a game in his fourth-round match Sunday, a stunning end to his 29-match winning streak and bid for an 18th Grand Slam title.

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 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 pleaded his case.

“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 it,” said Friemel, who made the decision to end the match. “And we all agree that he didn’t do it on purpose, but the facts are still that he hit the line umpire and the line umpire was clearly hurt.”

Friemel didn’t see what happened and said he was not allowed to check a video replay, but he was given a rundown by Egli and Tourte. Friemel said that even if Djokovic didn’t intend to hurt the line judge, she was hurt, and that was enough to merit the ruling.

Eventually, Djokovic walked over to shake hands with Carreno Busta. Tourte then announced that Djokovic was defaulted, the tennis equivalent of an ejection.

“I was a little bit in shock, no?” Carreno Busta said at a news conference done via video conference.

Djokovic quickly left the tournament grounds without speaking to reporters, posting an apology on social media hours later.

“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,” Djokovic wrote.

“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,” he wrote. “I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior.”

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 U.S. 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.”

“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.”

The USTA went on to say Djokovic forfeits the ranking points and $250,000 in prize money he earned in the tournament – “in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident.”

This is the latest way in which Djokovic finds 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 U.S. Open, he helped establish a new association he says will represent men’s tennis players.

And, of course, there’s been his dominance on the court.

Djokovic was 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, who has a men’s-record 20, and Rafael Nadal, who has 19.

With reigning U.S. Open champion Nadal, who cited concerns about traveling amid the pandemic, and Federer, sidelined after two knee operations, not in the field, the 33-year-old Djokovic was expected to claim a fourth U.S. Open trophy.

But it all came apart so suddenly Sunday, even if it was clear 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 written on his face as soon as he realized what happened.

But players who hit a ball out of 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 Carreño 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 Sunday night. “Just a fluke. It’s accidents like this that happen. Same thing with me.”

No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev, who will face No. 27 Borna Coric in the other quarterfinal on that side of the draw, called Djokovic “unlucky.”

“If it would have landed anywhere else – we’re talking a few inches – he would have been fine,” Zverev said.

Among the many oddities about the 2020 U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since the outset 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 would become the last game at this year’s U.S. 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 they 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 U.S. Open.

Each of the last 13 Grand Slam trophies had been won by Federer, Nadal or 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. “Now I think is the time when it gets really interesting.”

UNSEEDED AMERICANS Jennifer Brady and Shelby Rogers advanced to the women’s quarterfinals for the first time – each by upsetting former Grand Slam champions.

Brady beat 2016 U.S. Open champion Angelique Kerber, 6-1, 6-4, with a dominant serve and forehand.

Rogers joined her in the quarterfinals with a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6) victory over sixth-seeded Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion.

A bracket lacking many top players because of injuries and coronavirus concerns has given up-and-comers a chance to seize the moment. Nobody has done it better than Brady, who has yet to drop a set and has lost only 19 games in her four matches.

 


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