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No Novak, No Problem. Men’s Tennis Needs Some New Champions, Anyway.

Novak Djokovic’s early dismissal from the U.S. Open might alter the course of the sport’s history. For now, it’s an opportunity for a young generation of players to emerge from the shadow of the Big Three.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The shadow will soon cover all of us, so we might as well start by looking up at it. The expulsion of Novak Djokovic from the U.S. Open on Sunday for striking a line judge in the neck with a ball is an event that will loom over not just the rest of this U.S. Open, but the rest of the 2020 tennis season. In the unlikely event that Djokovic, who’s won 17 major titles, ends his career without surpassing Roger Federer, who’s won 20, it could cast a shadow over a large chunk of tennis history.

Does that sound excessive? Consider: Djokovic, the world no. 1, the tournament top seed, and the overwhelming favorite, had not lost a match all year heading into Sunday’s Round of 16 match against Pablo Carreño Busta. He was 26-0 and playing against a field in which several of his top competitors, including Federer and Rafael Nadal, were conspicuously absent, the former having shut down his season in June to rehab a knee injury and the latter having decided not to travel to New York amid coronavirus concerns. Djokovic’s 18th Grand Slam title was being delivered to him, if not quite on a silver platter, then at least on a very shiny tray. And then, in one moment of anger, he gave it away. As well as he’s been playing and as driven as he is, it’s hard to believe he won’t steam on and win five or six or seven more majors. But every chance matters, which is one reason high-profile referee interventions inflame fan passions so wildly. (Can you remember, without a massive blood-pressure spike, the coaching penalty that cost Serena Williams a game against Naomi Osaka in the 2018 women’s final, which Osaka won?) And if the history of tennis has taught us anything, it’s that often, when the winning stops, it stops all at once.

What happened was that Djokovic found himself trailing 6-5 in the first set against the 20th-seeded Carreño Busta. He’d worked himself into a bad mood during the previous game when he’d wasted three consecutive break points. Now, serving to force a tiebreak, he lost his footing chasing a shot and stumbled to the ground. He came up holding his left shoulder. There was a brief pause while a trainer came out to look at the injury. On the next point, Carreño Busto knocked a shot past him for a winner, and Djokovic, disgusted, whacked the ball backward in anger. It flew across the court and hit a line judge in the throat. On TV, the ball hadn’t looked terrifically hard-hit—it wasn’t as if Djokovic had smashed a 140-mph serve at her—but a tennis ball given even a middling smack by a player of Djokovic’s caliber is not a ball you want to stop with your windpipe. The line judge clutched her throat and fell to her knees.

There’s a distinctive sort of chaos that emerges on a tennis court when something utterly strange happens and no one knows what to do. People in khakis stand around talking urgently. Players gesture with their rackets. People with professional-grade Oakleys come out of the woodwork to murmur into Bluetooth headsets. It’s as if the apocalypse has just stood up to announce itself in the middle of a corporate project meeting, and it can’t go forward until all the middle managers have critiqued its PowerPoint. A long stretch of this sort of time now ensued within Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the atmosphere already felt strange, as it has all tournament, due to the absence of fans, mandated by the rules of the U.S. Open’s pandemic bubble. Then the official word was handed down by Soeren Friemel, the U.S. Open tournament referee. Djokovic was out.

Shadows: Djokovic’s otherwise incredible 2020 season has been full of them. He’s the best player in the world by an absurdly large margin, but he’s spent this year serving himself easily avoidable crises that not even he is capable of returning. He was already the most polarizing player in the game or at least the most polarizing player who doesn’t live in Australia and prefer basketball to tennis, and he keeps pushing the needle farther into the red. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he sent out anti-vaccination messages to his gargantuan social-media following. As the world suffered through lockdown in June, he plunged ahead with plans for his Adria Tour, a series of exhibition matches conducted with no social distancing, unless you count shirtless nightclub dancing as social distancing, because there was quite a bit of that. Several players, including Djokovic, tested positive for the virus, and the tournament had to be called off.

Last month, Djokovic announced that he was leaving the ATP Player Council and forming his own breakaway group. Its nature and purpose were not entirely clear, but it was criticized by other top ATP players, including Federer and Nadal, who said they were declining to join it, and by several WTA players, who noted that no women had been invited. Djokovic has won five of the past seven majors, but when it comes to controversy, he’s competing for the calendar Grand Slam.

Unlike the other self-owns of this year, however, Sunday’s incident was clearly an accident. Djokovic didn’t mean to hit anyone with the ball. He swung his racket without looking, and he ran to the line judge with concern as soon as he saw what had happened. After he was defaulted, he asked his online #NoleFam to treat her with kindness—a considerate gesture, though given some of the other things he posts online, you hope his supporters know when to listen and when not to. Top tennis players are often masters of using limited outbursts of anger to fire themselves up, and probably that’s all this was; Djokovic was trailing, and he felt his focus wasn’t quite where it should be, so he walloped the ball to help jolt himself back on track. It happens all the time, and because of the sheer randomness of the event, it’s easy, especially if you’re emotionally invested in his career, to feel he was treated unfairly. If the line judge had been standing 6 inches to the left, the ball would have missed her; he would never have been defaulted. How is what he did worse because of where someone else happened to be standing?

The thing is, though? You can’t hit a line judge in the throat with a ball. Once you do, the rest of the argument becomes an academic exercise because you are someone who hit a line judge in the throat with the ball. The rules are clear about this. It’s the player’s responsibility to behave safely with the ball between points. It is not the grounds crew’s responsibility to intuit where a frustrated all-time great is going to spray a ball during a between-points tantrum so they can prudently leave him a clear flight path. Other players—including highly ranked players, not that it should matter—have been defaulted for similar sportsmanship and ball-abuse violations in the past. Denis Shapovalov, who lost to Carreño Busta in the quarterfinals after Carreno Busta’s walkover against Djokovic, was kicked out of a match in 2017 for the same offense. The British legend Tim Henman was booted from Wimbledon for hitting a ball kid with the ball during a doubles match in 1995. One generally sound behavioral guideline to follow in tennis is that if it could get Henman kicked out of Wimbledon, you probably shouldn’t do it.

Djokovic screwed up. It was unlucky, and it could have happened to many players in many matches, but it happened to him. The rules prohibit “hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences.” If you hit a line judge in the neck, then friend, you have hit the ball dangerously and recklessly and with negligent disregard of the consequences. This doesn’t make Novak a worse person than he was yesterday, but if you find yourself online ranting in all caps that Federer would never have been defaulted in the hypothetical reality where he was the one who did this, you should lower the drawbridge of your victimhood citadel and repeat: He hit a line judge in the neck. He got disqualified. It’s not a wild abrogation of justice. It’s not the result of a conspiracy. It was just a dumb mistake—albeit one that instantly eclipsed the rest of men’s tennis.

Speaking of which: How about these men’s semifinals??? Weirdly, the manner in which this U.S. Open has played out is a perfect miniature of the last few years in men’s tennis. No one could beat Djokovic but himself. Federer and Nadal were somehow dominant presences despite not actually showing up to the event. And the cohort of young stars-in-waiting who’ve been struggling to break through the solid wall of the Big Three can now, at last, win their first major—but without beating a single member of the reigning regime in the process.

Collectively, the game’s top young players have somehow managed to be exciting, promising, and disappointing all at once. And as a showcase for this group—call them the Silver Generation—the draw worked out beautifully. Nick Kyrgios sat out the tournament for pandemic-related reasons, but most of the ATP’s other would-be saviors were present in the quarterfinals. We’ve seen Shapovalov, the dynamic Canadian player, who’s 21; Alex de Minaur, also 21; Borna Coric, 23; Andrey Rublev, 22 (and my personal favorite of the young players, because he shares a name with the great 15th-century Russian icon painter and the subject of Andrei Tarkovsky’s best film, which, trust me, takes on a whole different meaning when you watch it as tennis commentary); Daniil Medvedev, 24, the villain-clown-troll of the younger set who reached the final at the U.S. Open last year; the 6-foot-6 Alexander Zverev, who is only 23 even though he’s been discussed as one of the most promising players on earth for the last 450 years; and Dominic Thiem, the second-seeded men’s player, who is somehow already 27, and who has been in line for the throne even longer than Zverev. I mean, Thiem! All respect to the Prince Charles of men’s tennis. He shows up, does his duty, and the queen, bless her, just goes on staying alive.

The tennis has been—good? Does that seem fair? Not as instantly unforgettable as the scenes from Djokovic’s default, but fine, sprightly younger-generation tennis, played under truly weird circumstances. Now Zverev, Medvedev, and Thiem will be joined in the semifinals by Carreño Busta, who’s 29. One of these players will become the first player to win their first-time major since Marin Cilic won here in 2014. I’m excited. Yes, it could be better—if things had broken so that Thiem, say, had eliminated Djokovic, then we might have a sense of real generational change—but it could be a lot worse. I mean, Djokovic could have hit a line judge in the neck in the final, rather than the Round of 16. Then we would have no more tennis to watch, and nothing to do but sit and watch the hem of darkness sweep slowly over the earth.