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Novak, it's time to say sorry

Cat new author
Roar Rookie
1st August, 2021
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Cat new author
Roar Rookie
1st August, 2021

Novak Djokovic is the perfect person in the perfect place to make the perfect apology – for his own sake.

Dear Mr Djokovic,

I won’t start with, ‘I hope you are well’, because I can tell that you are not. I am a mother to two tennis players, so I understand and I care. You are an incredibly skilled and dedicated athlete, with an inspiring life story and great strength of character.

But, Novak, my friend, you are in big trouble.

You are clearly strung out and it’s not healthy. Smashing your rackets was just one of several recent primal temper tantrums. But you don’t need me to add to the chorus of people saying that your behaviour is dangerous and disappointing. You need a change of heart. You need to say sorry – and you need to mean it this time.

I saw you lose to Pablo Carreño Busta. You battled hard but the match was long, the weather was hot and you were in pain.

That’s tennis, I thought.

I saw you lose your focus and succumb to frustration, throwing and then destroying your racket and incurring the wrath of the media and fans.

That’s tennis, I suppose.


But you lost me when you said of the incident,

“It’s not the first time and not the last time probably. It’s not nice, of course, but it’s part of, I guess, who I am.”

That’s tennis? Really?

Both my teenage daughters play competitive tennis. They do a lot of losing and they are expected to do so calmly while respecting the game and their winning opponents.

If one of my kids dared to break a racket in anger, it would take her months of mowing lawns on weekends or coaching beginners after school to save enough money to buy a new one. That’s a lot of missed matches and a lot of time to think about how to cope with the pressure that just a few days ago you claimed was a “privilege” in elite sport.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

True, my daughters can only imagine the emotional pressure of the Olympic stage, the ardent expectations of your nation, your deep personal yearning for a Golden Slam to silence your critics and the 148 million dollars in prize money you have earned, so far. Which is exactly why you are the one to show my daughters how to cope. And Japan is the place to do it.

Various social science studies have established that apologising and taking responsibility for your mistakes will reduce stress, stabilise your heart rate and open pathways to empathy and forgiveness. Psychotherapist and author of The Power of Apology, Beverly Engel, says saying sorry is crucial for mental and physical well-being as it humbles the arrogant, reconnects loved ones and deters us from repeating the same stupid mistake over and over again.


Granted, the benefits do seem to be greater for those receiving the apology than for those giving it.

In fact, researchers in a study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found that when people refuse to express remorse, they actually show signs of “greater self-esteem, increased feelings of power and integrity.” That is certainly a self-fulfilling perspective for an athlete who sees himself as a fierce warrior and relentless fighter, inside whose mind fear and self-doubt are wholly unwelcome.

Even so, it doesn’t do you any good to act like a raving lunatic. I know that from the many times I have lost my shit arguing unsuccessfully with my teenage daughters (not over tennis, by the way).

You blew your medal chances, but the Tokyo Olympics are still your best chance to prepare for the US Open in just a few weeks. Why? Because nowhere in the world is a sincere and proper apology more important and artful than in Japan.

The Japanese language has more than 20 different ways to say sorry. One of the most vital Japanese words for sorry is ‘sumimasen’, a verbal lubricant applied generously to keep human interactions flowing smoothly. It is as much “excuse me” as it is “thank you”. It speaks of both respect for others and personal honesty.

In Japan, apologising is more than polite ritual or self-flagellation, it reflects a culture of gratitude and humility. Among the most telling examples of this happened during the soccer World Cup in 2018 in Russia. The Japanese team were ahead 2-0 in a knockout match against Belgium, but were beaten 3-2 in a shock Belgian comeback that sent Japan packing for home.

But before they departed, the Japanese players bowed to their opponents and took it upon themselves to thoroughly and immaculately clean their locker rooms then leave a “thank you” note in Russian to their hosts. Meanwhile, heartbroken Japanese soccer fans stayed in the arena to clean up rubbish in the stands.

Mr Djokovic, you messed up and now you need to clean up.


You could learn a lot about apologising from Japanese culture. We all could. Maybe, in this historic Olympic moment in Tokyo, you could even change tennis culture.

Expressing genuine remorse, not temporary regret, will lift a terrible public burden from your shoulders. It will show respectful gratitude for the immense efforts of the Japanese people to honour and celebrate Olympic athletes despite the pervasive COVID-19 danger.

And it will make my daughters far more likely to keep playing the GOAT sport of tennis and cheer to your success and good health in the US Open.

By Cat Holloway