Novak Djokovic’s former coach has admitted his US Open disqualification on Sunday has left the 17-time Grand Slam champion ‘in pain’.
The world No 1 was booted out of the Grand Slam in dramatic fashion when he swiped a ball to the back of the court angrily, only for it inadvertently to strike Kentucky-based official Laura Clark in the throat.
Clark fell to the floor and after consultation with the referee, officials determined they had no option but to disqualify Djokovic. It was his first loss of 2020 and while he shook hands with opponent Pablo Carreno Busta before departing, the episode has knocked his reputation in sport.
Radek Stepanek coached Djokovic alongside Andre Agassi for several months between 2017 and 2018 and he told CNN that he suspected the Serb was suffering.
‘I know he is very sad inside himself and he is in pain,’ Stepanek, former world No 8 told CNN.
‘He is in pain because it was unintentional and, in that moment, the pain is bigger.
‘And it’s hard for him because we know how hungry he is to become the player with the most grand slams. I believe he felt — everyone felt — this one should be for him, reachable.
‘All these circumstances make it very sad for him and in the first moment, empty, because I believe he himself knew that it was wrong that she got hit.’
Djokovic was handed a fine of $10,000 (£7,600) for ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ and was also stripped of his $250,000 (£190,000) prize money for reaching the last-16.
He left the Flushing Meadows site on Sunday without facing the media and waited hours before he released a statement on social media to apologise for his actions.
Djokovic wrote: ‘This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person 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. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.
‘I apologise to the US Open tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry.’
Her name, while not revealed by Djokovic, did eventually come to light and Clark was later targeted with vile abuse from some of the Serb’s legion of fans.
The milder end of the abuse saw her accused of play-acting from the strike while others subjected her to vile abuse about her son, who died in a bicycle accident in 2008.
Clark’s son died in 2008, and one of Djokovic’s fans told her ‘don’t worry, you’ll join him soon’.
Earlier on Tuesday, Djokovic put his own struggles aside to call on his supporters to show support to Clark in the wake of the barrage of abuse she was receiving for her role in his disqualification.
He wrote: ‘Dear #NoleFam thank you for your positive messages.. Please also remember the linesperson that was hit by the ball last night needs our community’s support too.
‘She’s done nothing wrong at all. I ask you to stay especially supportive and caring to her during this time.’
He went on to add: ‘From these moments, we grow stronger and we rise above. Sharing love with everyone. Europe here I come.’
Djokovic’s moment of madness in New York came four years after he bullishly dismissed concerns over his on-court frustrations in an angry exchange with a reporter.
The Serbian had hit a ball into the crowd during his three-set win over Dominic Thiem. Months earlier he nearly hit an official after throwing his racket in the French Open and he was asked if he feared his behaviour would one day ‘cost him dearly’.
He laughed off his question and said: ‘You guys are unbelievable. You’re always picking these kind of things.’
When informed he could have seriously hurt a spectator, he replied: ‘It could have been, yes. It could have snowed in O2 arena, as well, but it didn’t.
‘I’m the only player that shows his frustration on the court? That’s what you are saying? It is not an issue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.’
Djokovic had looked extremely likely to add to his 17 Major titles before his disqualification at the US Open and had been in imperious form, boasting a 26-0 record for 2020 which may have extended to the end of this strange season.
The disqualification is a massive blow to his hopes of usurping Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, both absent from Flushing Meadows, who stand on 19 and 20 Grand Slam titles respectively.
His participation in the French Open, postponed until later this month, was confirmed on Monday night by Tournament Director Guy Forget. Whether or not he will take up his place in next week’s Italian Open is far less likely as he returns home to lick gaping wounds.
The clay of Paris is the most difficult environment in which for him to win. Nadal is putting everything into collecting another title there, while Dominic Thiem is already established as a formidable challenger.