“She’s fine”. That’s what Novak Djokovic could be heard insisting over and over to US Open officials on Sunday, as they stood debating his removal from the tournament after he had swiped at a ball in frustration at losing a point and hit a female line judge.
To which I thought, “how do you know?”
Because, as any woman in the public eye, wittingly or unwittingly - or even any woman who dares put her head above the parapet on social media - understands, the physical cuts aren’t always the deepest.
Laura Clark, who fell to the floor gasping and clearly in pain when Djokovic’s errant ball smacked her in the throat, was thankfully not badly hurt. She is apparently resting at her hotel, under observation from the tournament medic, and hopes to return to her duties.
But who knows what lasting impact the incident may have? Judging by the backlash against her on social media, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were struggling to get back on her feet.
Djokovic’s disqualification was the right call: intent or not, if someone else gets hurt because you can’t control your anger on court, that’s just not good enough. And yet, it’s Clark who is being sent vile abuse, after her Instagram username was leaked by the Serbian media. Fans of the world number one have scrolled back through three years of her personal photos, posting horrifying messages below (her profile was set to open - where were the officials or members of team Djokovic advising her to swiftly turn it private?)
“Shame on you. Old lady full of evil,” read one. “Biggest b---- ever”, said another comment. “I hope you rot in hell for this.” “One day karma will come for you”. And what, to me, sounds a lot like a death threat: “Have you heard of a funeral class? It’s similar to first class, even better, you lay flat.”
Others have accused her of being a “drama queen” and “playing up to the cameras”. You only have to glance at the video still of Clark staring in alarm at Djokovic as she struggles to recover her breath to tell that she’s doing nothing of the sort.
But that’s the world in 2020: a petulant tennis player strikes you down while doing your job, through no fault of your own, and you become the villain.
Twitter, too, is full of baseless accusations that Clark “must have been drunk” as she didn’t blink as the ball hurtled towards her. God forbid that it all happened in a split second - Djokovic tending to whack tennis balls faster than the average person - and that she was frozen in shock. When, as a ballgirl, I was struck painfully on the thigh by a Lleyton Hewitt shot, there was no time for any physical reaction. And boy did it hurt. I can’t imagine what being hit in the throat must feel like.
Djokovic has come under fire for walking out of the Open on Sunday without conducting a press conference or offering.an apology. He only did so later on social media, writing: “This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the line 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.”
Following the abuse of Clark, he subsequently tweeted: "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.
"From these moments, we grow stronger and we rise above. Sharing love with everyone. Europe here I come."
Is it enough? It was he who decided to take the conversation off court and online, by refusing to address the incident immediately after it happened. And now that Clark’s privacy has been invaded online, and his fans are abusing her, he is seemingly sticking to the same tactic.
It's never too late to apologise in person and Djokovic must. A failure to do so will only be another smack in the throat for his reputation.