Mailbag: Takeaways from Djokovic's U.S. Open Default

Plus more insights from the U.S. Open as the tournament enters the second week of play in New York.
Publish date:

For this week's Mailbag: some U.S. Open chatter (and even some U.S. Open chatter not tied to Novak Djokovic)….

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

The Djokovic incident has given us the opportunity to see what the world will be like post-Big Three. Frankly, I rather like it. While Roger, Rafa and Novak are amazing, the ends of tournaments have been all too predictable. This next tier of contenders has a lot going for them! It's going to be SO exciting to see who ends up rising to the occasion to take the title. Your thoughts?
Jenny, Marietta, Ga.

• It will take some time to adjust. To the faces, the personalities, the match-ups that, yes, will be gripping but, no, will not come freighted with historical importance. But I agree. If the post-Big-Three future includes some combination of Felix and Denis and Frances Tiafoe and Andre Rublev and Tsitsipas and Berrettini and De Minaur and (bite my tongue) Kyrgios…..we’re going to be okay here, folks.

Rules are rules. But let’s agree to give some discretion to officials not to ruin a tournament. It’s a terrible outcome for everybody, from Novak to the lineswoman, and arguably even to the eventual Slam winner.
Yves, Montreal

• You know what would mark a terrible outcome for everybody? Inconsistent application of rules. It would have been an absolute disaster if Djokovic—having committed an unambiguous violation with an unambiguous punishment—had gotten off on a technicality. Credit the officials for resisting any impulse to make an exception for a star.

I’ll tread here. Two years ago, the U.S. Open made national news when officials followed the letter of the law—to the detriment of Serena Williams. Imagine if those same officials had found a spirit-of-the-law loophole to accommodate a white male?

Ridiculous to default Djokovic for accidentally hitting linesmen with tennis ball. I was hit in the mouth by a tennis ball on fly hit by a fellow tennis group member who is 6’6” and former college basketball player. It didn't feel good. But accidental and no damage just like no damage to lines person. I didn't “default” the guy who hit me. If there was damage like the tennis ball that hit an umpire in the eye by Shapovalov, then I can see it. Or if intentional.

It is amazing all the uproar over this incident or harmless statements like that made by former Cubs player Mark Grace, yet people ignore public health guidelines of "don't public gather" and assemble in the streets and at Washington Monument and nothing said by the media about them spreading the virus. For someone who has a master's degree in journalism, it is sad to see the bias in the media now. Journalism integrity is a thing of the past.
Russ, Los Angeles

• I’m not sure it’s worth picking this apart. You want rules subjectively applied based on context and, apparently, on your pain threshold; but the media is biased for avoiding false equivalences? Got it.

But, for the sake of representative sample, it’s worth pointing out that a distressing number of people used L’Affaire Djokovic to attack everything from snowflakes to Western media to, oddly, the “the cult of Billie Jean King,” to, perhaps worst of all, the female lineswoman. I don’t get this for the life of me. Remember the old Jeff Foxworthy bit, “You Might be a Redbeck if…” Here’s a cognate: “You might be a sociopath, if you are wishing this poor lineswoman anything other than an apology and speedy recovery.” (What a disservice this does to Djokovic, the player you purport to represent.)

I’m trying to get into the US Open this year, but to say it feels...different...would be an understatement. Regardless, I’ve been keeping up with scores and storylines, and can’t escape the thought that if it were Roger that had hit that poor lineswoman, despite the rule being tennis’ version of strict liability, the outcome would have been...different...What do you think?
L.T., Toronto

• Nah. There’s so much precedent here, there’s no player on the planet who would have escaped default. Some rules are squishy; this one is all but ironclad. And again, I go to Serena in the 2018 final. You have a prominent player (American, black, female) subject to strict application of rules. The event would have lost all credibility—and been subject to worldwide condemnation—if strict liability had been suspended for a white male.

First things first. We wish the lineswoman well and that she fully recovers. Down to business. Jon, Novak Djokovic came into the U.S. Open with the tournament being his to lose. Not only did he lose it, he lost the tournament by not being able to keep his emotions in check. I guess the tightness of the match made him agitated. Someone is going to win their first grand slam. Who is your new favorite? Your turn Jon.
A.H. Queens, N.Y.

• Glad you brought that up. Too many people—including media—jumped directly to Djokovic with too little concern for a woman writhing on the ground. (She’s better and resting we’re told.) As I write this, Medvedev is tops with the oddsmakers and Zverev second. I like Thiem, though; he reached the final of a major in 2018, 2019 and already in 2020.

It won’t happen to Djokovic. But if Sonia Kenin happens to win the U.S. Open and French Open, can’t we say she won the Grand Slam? It’s not her fault there was no Wimbledon?

• As anyone who’s eaten at Denny’s knows, a Grand Slam implies four. But it’s a fair point. This is like the maxim: “You can only play the seven players put before you.” You can only win the events that are staged. (And, of course, as I write this, Kenin loses.)

I agree with Rennae Stubbs. NOVAK, not the referee, should have defaulted himself, instead of arguing why, after hitting, intentionally or unintentionally, the line judge. Doing the right thing but not feeling right has nothing to do. It is the honor code. Didn't Roscoe Tanner concede the match after touching the net even though the chair umpire didn't call it?
L. Pereira, British Columbia, Canada

• I’m not sure we look to Roscoe Tanner for moral guidance. But your point —and Rennae’s point—is well-taken. Imagine if Djokovic had simply said, “I am sorry. I was unambiguously wrong and this violation, as we all know, is grounds for default. I’ll save you the trouble and I default myself.”

I’ll be honest, I’ve been in and out watching the U.S. Open. (Though if I can get a second monitor for my work computer that may change.) How would you rate the level of emotion displayed by players in the absence of fans, compared to with fans? Obviously and unfortunately, Djokovic’s actions complicate the question. Do fans matter that much?
Taylor, Medford, Mass.

• No doubt it’s strange and slightly hollow. You really realize the indispensable role of the crowd. Two food-for-thoughts:

1) Player after player says, “I had to generate my own energy out there.” Might it be that Djokovic’s indiscretion was a function of his motivating himself in the absence of fans?

2) Often when players score a big win at the U.S. Open, the next 48 hours are chaos. There are ticket requests and media requests and sponsors scrambling to add patches to attire. Here there’s none of that. And might this benefit the tennis. Score a big win and you can focus on your next match. Not whether the seamstress can sew a patch on your shirt while your boyfriend scrambles to get here from Tashkent.

While I don't like Djokovic anyway (boring style of play, whiney and a history of questionable behavior), his actions at the Open are certainly deserving of much more criticism than a default. Firing a ball in annoyance/anger towards the back of the court puts all the people back there at risk of which he was certainly aware. When I saw the clip of Shapovalov's hit that broke bones in an umpire's face you get a clear sense that the power of pro player's strokes are orders of magnitude greater than us duffers. If he was trying to argue his way out of disqualification, as it appeared he was trying to do, this is a damning comment on his personality. After hearing the decision from the official, he needed to say, "yes, of course, you're right" and exit.
Brian Hirst, Harpswell, Maine

• You could tell from his body language—and certainly by the body language of his coach, Goran Ivanisevic—that deep down he knew he was not playing another point this event. He argued but this was an act of desperation. Not exactly a Clarence Darrow argument, this: “She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this….You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, Grand Slam, center stage.”

Here’s a lukewarm take: Djokovic ought to be thankful he was defaulted. Had he somehow been able to play on, it would have eroded so much credibility and tainted any achievement. This would have been tantamount to getting away with a crime. Which would not have served his long-term interests.

This was something I was hoping to bring up in a future Mailbag not in the middle of a major tournament, but after Sunday this is too fresh in the mind/hot of a topic. Your old SI colleague Joe Posnanski wrote about Hawk-Eye Live at Cincinnati/New York and the U.S. Open and what it would mean for his primary beat, baseball. Prior to Sunday, what was the talk in tennis circles about the future of line judges at tournaments? Is this something that the sport was already building momentum towards, was it seen as a "sport in the era of covid" thing or somewhere in between? Then, building off what happened Sunday, does an incident like that accelerate the move away from line judges or is that an overreaction to a one-time incident?
Patrick, Ames, Iowa

• I don’t say this cavalierly, but I see a future with robots. We will miss the human element. The USTA will miss the Polo sponsorship. But maximizing accuracy and eliminating human error ought to be top priority. Not sure of the column you reference. But we stop at nothing to plug our pal JoePo.

Andy Roddick was the last U.S. man to win a Grand Slam title which was the 2003 U.S. Open. How come the U.S. women can develop Grand Slam title winners (Stephens, Kenin) in the era of Serena and Venus Williams but not the U.S. men. What is your opinion of Sebastian Korda?
Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.

• Three answers:

1) Young female athletes are not seduced by the NFL, NHL and MLB. And even where there is a female equivalent (basketball and soccer and golf, etc.) tennis players are better compensated.

2) Lukewarm take: the emotional maturity required for tennis is, on balance, more likely found in young girls than young boys.

3) The impact of the Williams sisters is one of the great underrated stories staring us in the face.

Keep up the great reporting both in print and on Tennis Channel. Question: Do you think the USTA used a double standard to expel Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien from the Western and Southern Open last week and only quarantined the seven players who were in greater contact with Benoit Paire? It seems Stacy McAllister's answer to this question was pretty vague at best. Do you think the USTA was influenced by the outcry from the players last week?
Alice Hume

• Ah, yes. The Paire Eleven. The USTA must send Novak Djokovic a Honey-Deuce-at-home kit this Christmas. One regrettable act and the entire focus of the event shifts. The double standard here was jarring. Sure, there were technicalities and questions about jurisdictions. But it distilled to this. “We can afford to quarantine two South Americans, as we should. But eleven players? Eleven? Damn, that’s a big number. From France, site of the Major, from a federation with whom we even swap wild cards? Zoots alors, that’s inconvenient. Wait, I know! It’s not a loophole, but it’s a similar geometric configuration: we’ll come up with a bubble within a bubble.”

Jon, Admittedly, I’m crossing streams here—your oft-stated disinterest in dwelling on kits, logos, and marketing in general with your much-appreciated advocacy for sensible health and safety practices—as I wonder: why aren’t we seeing more sponsor logos on players’ masks? I noticed Yonex matched up branded masks with their player kits, but where are Nike, Adidas, Lacoste, and the rest? I’d presume masks aren’t listed in any clothing contracts, but surely savvy brands saw this necessity/opportunity coming well in time to get some snazzy face coverings into production. Even us regular folks can get our hands on a professional-grade fashion statement.
Michael D, Asheville, N.C.

• Great point. What a missed opportunity. Talk about attire that we can—and should—all wear.

Jon, if the USTA still makes a profit after an 80% revenue decline due to the absence of fans, then instead of a players’ union to advocate to raise prize money how about the formation of a fans’ union to advocate to lower the outrageously high ticket prices.

• “But you don’t understand: it’s a non-profit”….The PTFA we can call it.

Take us out, Frank Marrazza:

In light of recent events this week, is the frisson, irreverence, 24-7, anything goes atmosphere of New York, and which makes the U.S. Open special, the same energy that draws controversy to it like a magnet the size of the sun?

The first major post COVID? Has to be the U.S. Open.

The No. 1 male player in the world, and one of the greatest of all time, defaulted for carelessly whacking a ball into the throat of a lineswoman? U.S. Open, we see you.

Serena, possibly the greatest female player of all time, involved up to her neck (some rightly; some wrongly) in a drama litany as long as her arm—2018 final against Osaka (accused of coaching, racket abuse and umpire abuse); 2011 final against Sam Stosur (a verbal baulk violating the hindrance rule); 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters (where a foot-fault call inspired Serena to threaten a rustic medical procedure on a lineswoman using force and tennis ball)—U.S. Open, step right up.

Post-match locker room push and shove? Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick, 2008 U.S. Open? Present!

Inferences from the No. 1 male player of racial bias against him during an early round match? Lleyton Hewitt vs. James Blake, 2001 U.S. Open? Reporting for duty, sir.

A spectator in the crowd shot during a third-round match involving John McEnroe, 1977 U.S. Open? Yeah? What’s up? I’m here.

But are any of these events even a patch on the drama that unfurled on the afternoon of September 13, 1981? Under the shadow of a bomb threat, the conclusion of the men’s final that day saw one of the all-time greats lose his fourth U.S. Open final, pick up his racket bag, and without a word and without attending the post-match presentation, quietly walk out of the stadium and out of tennis.

Only in New York.