The Racquet Rule: Why Novak Djokovic Almost Got Disqualified at the French Open

On Thursday, tennis star Novak Djokovic nearly lost his chance to advance to the semifinals at the French Open. Djokovic, who was leading opponent Tomas Berdych in two sets — 6-3 and 7-5 — narrowly avoided a DQ early in the first set before going on to win the match.

Out of frustration, the world-ranked number-one threw his racquet and nearly hit a line judge. Had the racquet hit the judge, Djokovic’s French Open championship hopes would have been polished off. Later, he explained that he had meant to throw his racquet to the ground, but it slipped out of his hand. He also admitted that he was lucky the racquet didn’t make contact.

“I am aware that I have been lucky, and I apologized to, you know, to people that have been in this particular situation with me and that could have been hurt by my racquet,” Djokovic said in a press conference following the match. “But… it was never the intention. It was just some unfortunate bounce, but fortunate ending of that scenario.”

In professional tennis, if a player’s racquet makes physical contact with an umpire or line judge, the player is immediately disqualified. However, if a line judge believes it is an accident, they can grant the player leniency.

The “racquet rule” is one of many regulations that the United States Tennis Association upholds. Tennis is a game that takes its sportsmanship seriously. Unsportsmanlike conduct is considered a "code violation" and includes "racquet abuse" — which is what Djokovic was nearly nabbed for. Racquet abuse is defined as "intentionally throwing a racquet or using it to strike an object other than the ball." In the USTA Code of Conduct, the full rule states:

“Section 18: Player shall not engage in unsportsmanlike conduct. During the course of a match a player shall not engage in:

a. Verbal abuse. Swear at an official, a spectator, or an opponent in a voice that can be heard by any person;

b. Visible or audible profanity or obscenity. Use profanity or insulting,

abusive, or obscene language in any way that may be heard by any

person or use obscene, insulting, or abusive gestures;

c. Racket abuse. Throw or break a racket other than in the normal course of play;

d. Ball abuse. Deliberately hitting, throwing, or kicking a ball that is not in play if the ball:

  • leaves the playing area;
  • hits or comes close to hitting any person; or
  • could cause damage or harm.

e. Physical abuse. Threaten or inflict bodily injury to anyone; or

f. Other unsportsmanlike conduct."

This wasn't Djokovic's first run in with the racquet rule. He faced a similar situation at the Rome Masters Final in May. Other greats, such as Andy Roddick and Marathon Safin, have faced consequences after throwing theory racquet. So why all the tantrums? Tennis legend Billie Jean King said it best: “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”