If you’re watching the US Open Tennis tournament on TV, and to be clear that is the only way to watch it, you’re probably well aware of two facts about the men’s draw. First, several top male players decided to sit this one out, including both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – as, by the way, did most of the women’s top 10. Second, the one household name in the men’s field, Novak Djokovic, ranked number one in the world with 17 majors under his belt, is also no longer playing. And it’s not because he lost, or tested positive for the virus, or just grew tired or bubble life, which, unlike the NBA version, sounds pretty miserable. Djokovic is out after defaulting during his round of 16 match with Pablo Carreno Busto, who despite being ranked 20th in the world, should have been little match for the most dominant player in the game.
But, frustrated and trailing five games to six in the first set, Djokovic swatted a ball behind him an inadvertently hit a line judge directly in the throat. This set off an official review which inevitably led to Djokovic being removed from the tournament for, technically I believe, unsportsmanlike conduct. It seems he also could have been booted for abuse of balls, which is just as awkward a rule as it sounds. There’s a lot of conversation about the bad luck of somehow hitting a human bullseye by accident, or how this would have been completely different if the ball has simply gone six inches to either direction. But as they say, when you play with fire, sometimes you get burned.
This is not the only controversial moment from the world’s number one. In particular, Djokovic organized a tournament in Croatia in June that followed pretty much no safety protocols and led to a bunch of folks testing positive – including him. He’s leading efforts to start a separate players organization that some folks think could tear the sport apart amidst the epidemic. And, not for nothing, he’s always been seen as an interloper in the very popular Rafa vs. Roger matchup, and perhaps he lacks the behavioral grace of those two particular statesmen. Which is why some have questioned whether Federer would have been kicked out for the same offense, one of those likely ill-conceived hypotheticals. It’s kind of why you tell your kids to behave at the beginning of the school year so they might the benefit of the doubt later on.
As someone who likes watching tennis, I won’t pretend I’m happy that the most talented player in the men’s draw is gone. For the record, as a marketing strategy, it’s never great to tell the fans that no one left in the field has ever won the US Open. Given the choices of Bubble basketball, the Tour de France, baseball, hockey, college football, soccer, and pretty much everything that can be jammed into the month of September, I can’t imagine anyone outside diehard tennis fans tuning in to the tournament’s unpredictable conclusion. I’m still hoping we get a Naomi Osaka/Serena Williams women’s final, but that’s about the only thing that will keep me away from College Game day on a largely deserted Wake Forest campus. So at a time where tennis really needed compelling television to stay relevant, they’ve kind of missed the mark.
Which leads to the obvious question, should Novak Djokovic have been disqualified for both acting like a child and potentially hurting a line judge, even if without ill intention. I don’t actually have a great answer for this, because it gets to the heart of what sport is, and how it’s evolved. If you were to look at sport as a sociological construct where rules and norms help both ensure fairness and teach important lessons, then yes, he should be out. Perhaps more to point, if my kid acted that way at a tournament, I’d want him kicked out. Then I’d yell at him the entire drive home.
Now, as the entertainment property that professional tennis has become, should the top player in the world and the singular popular draw in the men’s field be removed for something that did take on some element of bad luck, even if he’s still guilty? Probably not, not if you’re concerned about the economic viability of a sport that always seems to be in some kind of duress – even more so right now.
So should he have been kicked out. It’s a matter of perspective. And, I suppose in this case, a true matter of inches.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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