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“Djokovic’s Failings Laid Bare: Why The World No.1 Will Never Get The Respect He Craves”

By Alix Ramsay

He is the best player in the world at the moment; he is the man who has stated publicly – and on many occasions – that it is his ambition to end his career as the greatest player in history and he is the man who is trying to form a breakaway players’ association that will sit apart (he says alongside but, either way, separate) from the ATP.

Until last weekend, Novak Djokovic was the president of the player council, part of the ATP’s governing structure. As the world No.1, he is the go-to man for comment on all things tennis related. He has set himself up as the spokesman for his fellow professionals.

And yet, when it came time to speak, Djokovic ran for his life.

On Sunday night, Djokovic was defaulted from his fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta. He had just lost his serve in the first set and, in a fit of rage and frustration, he hit a spare ball with considerable force towards the back of the court. Unfortunately for him, the ball struck Laura Clark, a line judge, full in throat and knocked her down like a skittle.

Rather than face up to what he had done, Djokovic left the tournament site as quickly as he could. There was no press conference, no public admission of guilt, no public act of contrition. He simply legged it.

Sure enough, he posted something on Instagram hours later and, sure enough, the attempt at an apology was rather more about him than it was about the court official. His opening line was: “This whole situation has left me really sad and empty”.

“I need to go back within and work on my disappointment,” he went on, “and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.”

That was all well and good but it was not the heartfelt mea culpa that was required on this occasion. And taking to social media is the weak way out. The Twittersphere is knee-deep in keyboard warriors who, from the safety and anonymity of their back bedrooms, will rant and rage at anyone and about anything. Ask them to do it face to face and you will not see them for dust. Indeed, many of these anonymous bullies have been posting vile abuse on Clark’s Instagram account ever since she got that ball in the throat.

Djokovic’s actions, then, were not the actions of a leader.

No one is suggesting that Djokovic deliberately aimed the ball at Clark, that his sole intent was to do harm or hurt. But as a 33-year-old professional, one who has been playing the sport since he was four, he knows the rules.  By “intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences”, he left the tournament referee, Soeren Friemel, with no choice; Djokovic had to be defaulted.

Speaking to a group of reporters late on Sunday night, Friemel explained exactly how he arrived at his decision: “I saw the line umpire… was on the ground with the doctor, the physiotherapist, next to her as well, Novak and the chair umpire, we took care of the line umpire, making sure she is all right, then the grand slam supervisor (Andreas Egli), who was watching the match, who was assigned to Ashe, and the chair umpire, Aurelie Tourte, explained what happened.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia (R) talks to Head of Officiating at International Tennis Federation (ITF) Soeren Friemel.

“What was explained to me was that after Novak Djokovic lost the point, he took a ball out of his pocket, hit it recklessly and angrily, at the back and hit the line umpire on the throat.

“The line umpire was clearly hurt and in pain, she went to the ground and we had to take care of her. The facts were discussed or explained by the chair umpire and the grand slam supervisor.

“In this situation it’s especially important that we are 100 per cent sure of exactly what happened, especially since I was in the referee’s office. But the facts were established and then I had to talk to Novak Djokovic, gave him the chance also to state his point of view, and based on the facts that the ball was hit angrily, recklessly, that it went straight at the line umpire’s throat, the line umpire was clearly hurt and in pain, the decision was made that Novak had to be defaulted.”

In his defence, Djokovic said that it was unintentional, that the injury to Clark was an accident. And Friemel admitted that, as a referee, he can use discretion in certain cases. But not in this one.

“In the end, any code violation, there is a part of discretion to it,” Friemel said, “but in this instance, I don’t think there was any chance of any opportunity of any other decision other than defaulting Novak, because the facts were so clear, so obvious, that the line umpire was clearly hurt and Novak was angry, he hit the ball recklessly, angrily back and taking everything into consideration, there was no discretion involved.”

So now Denis Shapovalov will face Carreno Busta rather than Djokovic in the quarter-finals of the US Open. He became the first Canadian ever to reach the last eight in New York after he beat David Goffin in four sets on Sunday. As chance would have it, he knows exactly how Djokovic is feeling today – Shapovalov was defaulted from a Davis Cup tie against Great Britain in 2017. But he handled his moment of madness very differently.

At the time, Shapovalov was just 17 and he was playing the deciding fifth rubber against Kyle Edmund in the World Group first round. He was on home soil, playing in front of a partisan crowd in Ottawa and this was his moment to become a national hero. It was only the second live rubber of his fledgling Davis Cup career; this was as big as it gets for a 17-year-old rookie.

But Edmund was in control with a two-set lead and when Shapovalov dropped his serve early in the third set, he could contain his frustration no longer. He welted the ball away in anger but miscued his shot. Instead of flying high over the stand, the ball caught the umpire, Arnaud Gabas, in the left eye (a few days later, Gabas had surgery to repair the damage). There was no alternative for the referee but to default the teenager and award the rubber – and so the match – to Great Britain.

As soon as he realised what had happened, Shapovalov went to the umpire to see if he was all right. He apologised there and then. So far, so much like Djokovic on Sunday. But then, after the default had been announced and the court had emptied, Shapovalov appeared before the press to answer for his actions. He could have hidden behind his team captain, Martin Laurendeau, but he didn’t. He could have stayed in the locker room, but he didn’t. Or he could just have run away, but he didn’t.

“Luckily, he [Gabas] was OK but obviously it’s unacceptable behaviour from me,” he said three years ago. “I just feel awful for letting my team down, for letting my country down, for acting in a way that I would never want to act.

“I can promise that’s the last time I will do anything like that. I’m going to learn from this and try to move past it.”

The upshot was that most reporters wrote that, yes, Shapovalov deserved to be defaulted and that, yes, it was a terrible thing to have done. Yet the general consensus was that the teenager had been mature, he had been contrite and he had handled an awful situation as best he could.

Those same reporters could not say the same about Djokovic, the world No.1 and the man who wants to change tennis forever, in this morning’s papers.