Novak Djokovic this week became the first tennis player for 20 years to be defaulted from a Grand Slam tournament, when a ball he hit between points during his fourth round US Open match struck a line judge in the throat. But the contact was unintentional – for the really dramatic cases of sports stars losing it, you need our guide to the best on-field bust-ups ever.
The Headbutt Heard Around the World. The stage doesn’t get any bigger than this – a World Cup final. The 2006 match – Zidane’s last ever – had entered extra-time, giving the French star even longer to endure the constant shirt-tugging from his Italian opponent Marco Materazzi. Eventually Zidane’s temper snapped, and he told Materazzi that if he really wanted the shirt he could have it after the game. Materazzi replied that he would rather have Zidane’s sister.
This isn’t the sort of thing you say to someone several inches taller than you with a famously short fuse. Zidane chased Materazzi, blocked his way and delivered a powerful headbutt to his chest. He was sent off, and France went on to lose the match on penalties.
But even this couldn’t threaten the French’s admiration for their beloved ‘Zizou’. In 2012 a series of artworks commemorating famous historical incidents included a 16 foot-tall statue of the headbutt outside Paris’s Pompidou centre.
You might think that Mikhail Youzhny has ‘best ever smash of a tennis racquet’ sewn up with the incident at the 2008 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, when after losing a point he whacked himself on the head three times, so hard that he drew blood and had to receive medical attention. But he then won the next seven points, the resulting tiebreaker and the whole match. So for sheer self-defeating stupidity, the title has to go to Goran Ivanisevic. His equipment damage took place in Brighton at the 2000 Samsung Open.
After losing his service in the first set, he broke his racquet, and received a warning. After damaging the replacement racquet in the third set, he was warned again. A couple of games later he broke a third racquet. Although he got a third warning, this wasn’t actually the reason for his demise. The problem came because he didn’t have any more racquets. The match supervisor asked Ivanisevic if he could find another in the allotted time (‘three or four minutes’), and even offered to help him look. But there were none to be found. Ivanisevic lost the match because of a ‘lack of suitable equipment.’
The player himself has never been able to see the problem. ‘When you break a racquet, everyone starts booing you. What’s wrong with them? Firstly, this is my racquet. Second, if I want to break the racquet, I will break the racquet. Then I’ll forget about it and get a new one in my bag. And the match continues. Because if you have talent like me, you can break your racquet on almost any surface. I can break a racquet on water. I have a special gift.’
At the 2014 European Youth Boxing Championship in Zagreb, the Croatian fighter’s light heavyweight bout against Algirdas Baniulis of Lithuania was stopped after the referee gave him a standing count. To say that Loncar took the decision badly is an understatement. Returning to the centre of the ring for the formal announcement, minus his gloves, he delivered a crushing blow to the referee’s stomach, then continued to rain punches down on him as the official lay on the canvas.
You’d think that of all the people qualified to stop Loncar, Baniulis would be at the top of the list – he had, after all, just beaten him. But the Lithuanian literally ran away, leaving the other officials to rescue their colleague. Loncar was finally pulled from the ring by his feet, sliding off the apron and hitting the floor of the arena. Don’t worry, he won’t be repeating the offence – it got him banned from boxing for life.
Paolo di Canio
Another referee who came off second best. Though as with Zinedine Zidane, the sent-off player retained most people’s sympathy. In 1998, Sheffield Wednesday’s star forward Paolo di Canio was dismissed for kicking out at Arsenal’s Martin Keown in a multi-player fracas. He saw red at seeing red, and shoved referee Paul Alcock in the chest. Alcock staggered backwards for a few paces, then fell over. The incident resulted in an 11-match ban, but that was FA officials being officious. Everyone else could see that Alcock had over-dramatised things to such an extent he should have been sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board. Had one of the Chuckle Brothers executed a ‘fall’ like that in panto, they’d have lost their Equity card.
In 2007 the notoriously fiery baseball manager, then in charge of the Chicago Cubs, raced on to the field to remonstrate with the third base umpire about a decision he’d just made. Towering over the official and yelling in his face, Piniella first threw his own cap on the ground and kicked it away in disgust, then repeatedly kicked dirt over the umpire’s shoes. The incident got him ejected from the game – but he later cashed in by filming an advert for Aquafina bottled water, in which he recreated his outburst while yelling ‘you’re doing a fantastic job! Lately I’ve been feeling happy and content!’ to show how drinking water makes you feel less irritable
The Spaniard has earned a reputation as the Titan of the Tantrum. He frequently smashes clubs into the ground, sometimes even on the green. At the 2012 US Open he demolished a TV effects microphone, while at the 2018 Valero Texas Open he hurled his club off the tee, meaning that as everyone else walked on down the hole he had to stay behind, searching in the bush where his club had landed. Occasionally he gets inventive – at the 2007 CA Championship, for example, he responded to missing a putt on the 13th green by spitting into the hole. And during the 1999 World Matchplay at Wentworth he was so incensed at mis-hitting a tee shot that he took off one of his shoes and hurled it into the crowd. Thankfully for him a spectator threw it back, but even then Garcia kicked the shoe away in disgust.
But his peak pique came at the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale. Garcia slammed his club into a gorse bush, not reckoning with the strength of Merseyside’s foliage. The bush resisted his club, sending the force back up his arm and into his shoulder. He was in pain for the next few holes, and eventually had to receive on-course treatment.
The Australian snooker player had, in the words of one journalist, ‘a petulant streak as wide as the Tasman Sea’. Even as a junior he was disciplined after a series of controversies that included spitting on an opponent’s mother. But Hann’s most famous contretemps came during the 2004 World Championship. During his second-round match against Andy Hicks he said: ‘I really enjoyed the last three times I beat you.’
Perhaps he knew this wasn’t going to be a fourth victory – he lost the match 10-4. During the handshake at the end Hicks said: ‘You’re not in the top 16 next year now’. As it happened this wasn’t correct, but Hann didn’t like the insult. He replied with: ‘You’re short, you’re bald. You always will be and you can have me outside whenever you want.’ The referee had to separate the players. Hicks’s friend and fellow player Mark King responded by saying Hann could fight him instead. The pair went head-to-head in a charity boxing match. Hann won, but by 2006 his snooker career was over – he was banned after being found guilty of match-fixing offences.