By Lenn Robbins
The Dj0ke’s on us. All of us.
To the diehard fans – who support their niche sport all year long, burst with delight when a major tournament thrusts tennis to the forefront of our interest and the back page of the tabloids – the Djoke’s on you.
To the non, hardcore tennis fans, who appreciate watching the greatest in any sport work their magic on the biggest stages – the Djoke’s on you too.
To the savvy New York sports fans who have elevated the U.S. Open to one of the must-watch and must-be-seen-at events of the Big Apple – the Met Gala of tennis if you will – yes, the Djoke’s on you as well.
Regardless of which category – or categories – you consider yourself a member of, it is the great players we yearn to see. Tennis has an elite few – Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, currently the game’s best.
Tennis has fewer household names than the major sports, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But it needs its elite players to go deep into the majors for a host of reasons that almost all have to do with money. Sure, it’s thrilling to witness a young star in the making, but superstars – Serena, Tiger, Tom, LeBron – are the lifeblood of sports.
They thrill their base and draw in some fans that can’t tell a football from a tennis ball. Their popularity and excellence help grow their respective sports. The longer those players go in the playoffs or to the final days of a major competition, the better it is for the fans, networks, athletes themselves.
As you know by now, Djokovic’s run at the U.S. Open ended Sunday, when in a moment of childlike frustration, he unintentionally rocketed a ball off a linesperson’s throat. Fortunately for all, the linesperson was not seriously injured, but clearly shaken.
Unfortunately for all of us, Djokovic was defaulted, or ejected in the sports’ vernacular, by chair umpire Aurelie Tourte.
The United States Tennis Association issued a statement backing Friemel’s actions as being, “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.”
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” Djokovic said in an Instagram post. “I checked on the linesperson 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.”
So true, but was tossing the 33-year-old Serbian, who was the most recognizable player in the men’s draw, the best course of action for the tournament, the sport, the moment?
Yes, a testy Djokovic, who was trailing one Pablo Carreno Busta, 6-5, in the first set, whacked the ball with all the regard of a toddler whacking a pinata. And yes, he certainly could have seriously injured the linesperson. But he didn’t.
As soon as he saw the ball make contact, he walked directly to the fallen linesperson, apparently mouthing an apology. Meanwhile a hush fell over the Arthur Ashe Stadium as, wait!
There are no fans at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, just as there are no fans at most sporting events in this era of the coronavirus pandemic. Playing the Open this year is a New York tough statement. This city, once brought to its knees by the virus, is making a resurgence.
Not having fans at the Open has been a bummer. No sport enjoys a more intimate and emotional connection between athlete and fan than tennis. I mean, we haven’t heard about any Gionvanni Bartocci’s standing outside the NBA bubble or Scostiabank Arena or Yankee Stadium with a microphone and speaker yelling his bloody head off, have we?
The USTA followed its rulebook to the letter at a time when no one has a playbook for all the ramifications of this pandemic. Everyone from Djokovic, to all the linespersons, to the security guards, who are enforcing mask and social distancing guidelines, are dealing with more stress and anxiety than ever.
You wonder if during the 10 minutes or so that Tourte, tournament referee Soeren Friemel and Grand Slam supervisor Andreas Egli, discussed Djokovic’s penalty for his juvenile temper tantrum, that they factored that we’re all strung tighter than a racket these days.
The men’s draw now is left with no player who has won a U.S. Open. Nadal opted out over concerns about travel during the pandemic. Federer is recovering from two knee surgeries.
Non-tennis reporters and fans are Googling Pablo Carreno Busta, the Spaniard who entered the Open as the 20th seed, ranked 27th in the ATP rankings with 1,500 points, or 9,360 less than Djokovic. I know. I Googled him.
Here’s what doesn’t need to be Googled. The U.S. Open faces competition from the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals. The NFL season begins Thursday night. The Open might have pulled some fans or benefitted from better ratings if one of the sport’s superstars advanced to the semis or finals. That ended when Djokovic was tossed.
The Djoke’s on us.