Novak Djokovic was sensationally defaulted from the US Open on Sunday night after petulantly smashing the ball at a lineswoman in a fit of pique.
The world No 1, massive favourite for the tournament, was slung out after lengthy deliberations with tournament officials while playing his fourth round against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.
The 33-year-old Serb had just dropped serve for 5-6 against the No 20 seed when he angrily swiped away a ball that appeared to hit the lineswoman in the throat.
Djokovic will lose all his prize money to date believed to be around $250,000 (£188,000) and any ranking points earned in the tournament to date.
The volunteer helper keeled over and the rules are quite clear about such abuse of those working on the court: the player has to go.
Referee Soeren Friemel was summoned onto court inside the giant, deserted Arthur Ashe Stadium by umpire Aurelie Tourte.
He was told, after plenty of debate, that there was no option but to default him from a tournament that has already seen a surfeit of drama.
Djokovic attempted to plead his case and could be heard arguing, all to no avail.
‘She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this,’ he said as he stood at the net, a shocked look on his face. ‘You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, Grand Slam, centre stage?’
Friemel, backed up by senior official Andreas Egli, held firm, even when he added: ‘You have a game penalty, set penalty, many options.’
When he had exhausted his excuses and been informed of the decision he walked over with relative calm over to the Spaniard and shook hands.
A United States Tennis Association (USTA) statement in the aftermath read: ‘In accordance with the Grand Slam rulebook, 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 US Open tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open.
‘Because he was defaulted, Djokovic will lose all ranking points earned at the US Open and will be fined the prize money won at the tournament in addition to any or all fines levied with respect to the offending incident.’
Djokovic had looked extremely likely to add to his 17 Major titles and had been in imperious form, boasting a 26-0 record for 2020 which looked likely to extend to the end of this strange season.
It is a massive blow to his hopes of usurping Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, both absent from Flushing Meadows, but who stand on 19 and 20 respectively. At the age of 33 he can hardly afford to spurn such opportunities.
One upshot of the drama is that there is going to be a long-awaited new Grand Slam champion in men’s tennis for the first time since Marin Cilic won in New York six years ago, with the young guns eagerly waiting in the wings for one of the established stars to slip.
There appears little question that Djokovic’s angry swish of the racket did not mean to injure anyone, it was just an act of frustration. Immediately he saw he had hit his unintended target, he gestured his apology and knew that he was in deep trouble.
Tim Henman was defaulted from Wimbledon 25 years ago for a similar mishap, and he knew better than anyone that there was no alternative to the punishment.
‘It’s the right decision,’ said Henman on Amazon Prime. ‘It happened to me at Wimbledon 1995 in the same scenario, You have to be responsible for your actions, when you look at the facts you have to be defaulted.’
This time it was borne of someone who sometimes acts as if he is above the sport, as he tries to cement a legacy comparable to that of Nadal and Federer.
Djokovic has flirted with this kind of disaster before, with instances of him thrashing balls away in anger that have gone into the crowd, or snatching towels from ballkids in an aggressive manner.