The spectacular ouster of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic from the US Open may well have marked the end of a gold standard era in tennis. With Djokovic out of the tournament after hitting a lines umpire in the throat in unfortunate circumstances, there are no grand slam winners left in the tournament, opening the gates for a new crop of champions.
The curtain may have finally come down on the long years of brutal, mind-blowing domination of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic trio in world tennis. The three great champions took home a collective 56 of the last 67 grand slams titles, seldom leaving a crown to the challengers in the last 16 years or so. It looks like that era is over, as Federer is gently stepping into the twilight of his career and Nadal is seen to be putting caution ahead of aggression by stepping away from the US Open this year.
Yet, Djokovic was unabashedly in the race to be crowned as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) by overtaking both Federer and Nadal in the grand slam tally. Many tennis analysts believed he would emerge as the leading grand slam winner among the three. And this year had just offered the perfect setting for him.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had skipped the tournament, held in the shadow of the Coronavirus epidemic, leaving an eerily open field for the Serbian to win the title at the Fleshing Meadows and edge closer to Federer and Nadal with his 18th Grand Slam title. Federer and Nadal must have taken a high-stakes decision by skipping the Open this year, knowing full well that they would be letting Djokovic come snapping at their heels.
What Happened on the Court?
Videos showed Djokovic angrily hitting the ball after losing a crucial break point in the first set against Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta. The ball, hit in medium force as Djokovic turned around, bounced once and hit the lineswoman directly in her throat. It's obvious that the lineswoman wasn't, and need not have been, in a state of alert as the game was just over and the ball was no longer in play. The official is heard letting out a painful, loud gasp and seen falling to the ground.
Is Disqualification the only Outcome?
As per the tennis rules, disqualification of the player is the only logical outcome under such circumstances. The rules state that if a player hits the ball angrily and if it hits anyone in the court or the surroundings, they are liable to the punishment. Tennis greats like John McEnroe and Tim Henman had earlier received similar punishments.
Yet, Djokovic was seen arguing with the officials, who took a long 15 minutes to arrive at the decision. Reports said Djokovic unsuccessfully argued that the official was not severely injured so as to be taken to the hospital. "She doesn't have to go to hospital for this," adding, "You're going to choose a default in this situation? My career, grand slam, centre stage," the top player said.
However, his defence didn't convince the US Open officials, who handed him the disqualification. "In accordance with the Grand Slam rule book, 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 U.S. Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 U.S. Open," the United States Tennis Association said.
Serbian Draws Flak
Djokovic drew flak from the international tennis community not so much for the inadvertent act of hitting and injuring the official but for his apparent effort to dig in as well as his decision to leave the arena before the official press meeting. He shook hands with his opponent and left the court immediately after he was disqualified and was seen shortly afterwards entering his car and driving away.
However, Djokovic later issued an apology. "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," he wrote on social media. "I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior."
Who Will Lift US Open Crown This Year?
An all new brigade of top guns have been waiting in the wings all along, only to be outsmarted by the reigning three. This pack is led by the likes of Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. Among them, Tsitsipas has bowed out of the tournament after losing a closely fought 5-set epic to Croatin Borna Coric. That leaves the field to Thiem, Zverev and Medvedev.
The crowning of one of these young stalwarts might be the big game changer. Success here will fuel the appetite of the young quartet, setting up a chain of events that could see the emergence of a new power balance in the game.
However, the upcoming French Open 2020 will give clearer hints at the way fortunes would shape up in men's tennis. Reigning champion Rafal Nadal has confirmed participation in the event, which he has won an incredible 12 times. He is tipped to lift the crown once again, but nothing is certain. The tournament is played in September, which means that Nadal, already feeling rusty due to months of inaction, will have to grapple with vastly different weather conditions. If he loses, and one of the young challengers tastes the blood, the story could be very different going forward.
Who knows, Djokovic might well have set the ball rolling for an eventual, inevitable change of guard at the top most echelons of tennis.