In the Djokovic default, should intent matter?


Al Bello

You've seen it by now: Sunday afternoon, late in the first set of a U.S. Open round of 16 match, world no. 1 Novak Djokovic did something very stupid. Frustrated that he'd just lost his serve a game after blowing a handful of set points, he took the extra ball from his pocket and slapped it toward the back wall. This would be unremarkable in normal circumstances, but in a twist of unbelievably bad luck for everyone involved, the ball hit a line judge in the throat:

Everyone seemed to agree that it wasn't done on purpose, but that didn't seem to matter. The Grand Slam rulebook, which prohibits hitting a ball "recklessly" or "with negligent disregard for the consequences," coupled with the rules for physical abuse and a standard that's been established from past incidents, gave the tournament referee no choice—he declared a match default, meaning that Djokovic was out of the U.S. Open. It's an enormous consequence, particularly for a guy chasing history as he tries to catch Roger Federer's grand slam record. (For the record, despite the shocking initial moments of the injury when the line judge could be heard gasping for breath, she seems to have suffered no serious injury.)

Before we get to the issue of intent, and whether the presence or absence of malice should matter, there are a few other factors to consider.

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First, in the court of public opinion, Djokovic received very little sympathy, and a lot of that has to do with his abysmal conduct during the pandemic. Whether he was amplifying pseudo-science (example: poisonous water can be detoxified by the power of positive thinking), outing himself as an anti-vaxxer, partying in Serbian clubs with no regard for public health, or staging ill-advised exhibitions in which he and other players caught COVID-19, he's made a complete fool of himself and permanently damaged his legacy. The fact that he was ejected from the U.S. Open, a tournament he had an excellent chance of winning, struck many as a kind of karma, and it didn't help that he refused to speak to the press and saved his apology for Instagram. Nobody will cry for Novak.

Second, back to the incident, the USTA did the right thing by the written rules, and should be commended for treating Djokovic the same way they would treat the 200th ranked player in the world. That's not easy—losing him is a blow, and will hurt the rest of the tournament in a few ways, including TV ratings, as we enter the second week.

Now, let's talk about intent. In the rules as they're currently written, there's no room for considering whether Djokovic meant to hit the line judge. They only looked at his initial intent—i.e. whether he struck the ball in frustration, which was an obvious yes—but not whether he wanted to hit the woman, which everyone agreed he did not. There are good arguments for why that secondary intent shouldn't matter. If you're engaging in angry behavior that has the chance to hurt someone, some would argue that it's irrelevant whether the worst consequence comes to pass; you should be punished as though it has.

The problem is, that's not really how sports (or life) works. There are gradations of punishment. If Djokovic had simply hit the wall, he would likely have been assessed a one-point penalty, since he'd been warned for doing the same thing a few points earlier. The fact that he hit a line judge in the throat obviously changed the complexion of the incident. The punishment was greater because the nightmare actually transpired, which makes sense by the rules—Djokovic veered into physical abuse territory, however unintentionally. It even mattered how he hit her, if you believe tournament referee Soren Friemel, who told the ESPN broadcast crew that the apparent seriousness of her injury and the fact that she left the court was taken into account in the final judgment. If the ball had glanced off her shoe instead, they might have found a way to excuse him. (Denis Shapovalov had the same thing happen to him when he angrily crushed a ball that hit the chair umpire's eye at the 2017 Davis Cup, which was a significantly worse injury.)

But if we're going to have gradations based only on what happens—i.e., you get a one-point penalty if your tantrum has no accidental victims, but a match default if it does, especially if it results in a serious injury—isn't there an argument that we should also have gradations based on intent? Djokovic intendedto hit the ball in frustration, but he did not intend for it to hit the line judge. Shouldn't there be a middle penalty for acts of frustration that result in accidental minor injury, but aren't committed with personal malice?

I'm phrasing these thoughts as questions because I truly don't know the answer. As you can probably guess by the fact that I'm asking, my gut reaction was that it seemed absurd to kick him out of the tournament for an unlucky mistake that didn't result in any lasting damage. But I see the argument for punishing illegal behavior that can hurt somebody, and the complexities deepen the more you look at it. There's probably also some bias on my end; I don't like Djokovic on a personal level, but if his quest for history is going to be stopped, I wish it would be stopped by another player and not the rule book. That's an implicit argument for a double standard, though, and I know that if a minor player suffered the same penalty, I wouldn't really care enough to peel back the onion layers.

His default is a shame, but that doesn't mean it was wrong. Still, I think it's fair to look at the rules, note the unyielding language, and wonder if there should be more room for interpretation in cases like these. I may be in the minority, but I don't feel the punishment quite fits the crime. In strange circumstances, even a good rule can be too rigid.