On this day in tennis history (10 September) we should be celebrating Stefan Edberg’s successes of 1983. Instead, fond memories are marred by the freak accident that took a tennis official’s life.

Novak Djokovic has continued to make headlines since his disqualification from the US Open. After inadvertently striking an official’s throat when hitting a ball in anger, a minority of his fans have claimed the lineswoman vastly exaggerated her injury. She has received death threats and even vile comments about her son who passed away.

However, over the years tennis balls have caused unusual injuries and even fatalities. Djokovic has entreated his fans to respect the danger he posed to the woman. Wind the clock back 37 years and we see a prime, tragic example of why they should listen. 

On 10 September 1983, Stefan Edberg was competing in the Junior US Open final. He was on his way to becoming the first (and only) open era player to win all four junior grand slams in a calendar year. 

But then, disaster struck. 

Tennis at the US Open. Photo credit: Pixabay

On this day in tennis history: Killer ace  

Richard Wertheim, a 61-year-old linesman, was struck by a winning serve from the young Swede. Sat in position as centre linesman, he was caught in the groin by the ball. Wertheim fell from his chair, hitting his head on the hard court surface.

Despite being rushed from the National Tennis Centre to the nearby Flushing Hospital, bleeding on the brain caused irreparable damage. He died five days later. 

Failed court case 

Wertheim’s family sued the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for $2.25 million

However, before male tennis players start proclaiming a knock to the balls can be fatal and threatening to sue opponents, it’s worth considering Wertheim’s prior health issues.

 

He had suffered heart conditions for more than 20 years, having had a heart attack and stroke aged 40. The Supreme Court of New York overruled an initial $165,000 jury award to his estate, with eyewitness accounts suggesting he experienced a stroke after the impact of Edberg’s strike. 

Since this incident, the USTA no longer permits linesmen to sit down during play. 

Death by tennis

Tennis balls don’t just pose a danger to humans. At the 2002 Australian Open, a bird flying in the wrong place at the wrong time was knocked dead by Michael Llodra. The bird, reportedly a house martin, was killed instantaneously by the force of the forehand and dropped like a stone to the court surface. 

Julien Boutter, of the opposing doubles pair, rushed to where the bird lay, praying for a miracle. Sadly, it wasn’t to be so he fell dramatically to his knees and made a sign of the cross.

All four competitors joined Boutter in a mock funeral before they continued what was a tight semi-final encounter. Llodra’s deadly forehand proved strong enough to win and he went on to take the title in two of the next three years.

And while the story of Richard Wertheim may be tragedy enough to stop Djokovic launching any more balls towards line judges in the future, there’s one final tennis ball tragedy to tell. 

2002 was a particularly notorious year for the fuzzy yellow spheres. Linda, the only female hippo at Dublin Zoo at the time, died after swallowing a ball thrown into her enclosure. The zoo stressed the importance of not throwing anything to the animals. 

Fortunately, like the other strange tennis ball deaths, this sad case was an isolated incident. Parents are advised to explain to their children that Hungry Hungry Hippos isn’t an accurate representation of a real hippo’s diet.  

Hungry Hippos. Photo credit: Hasbro
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