Crisis Comms Lessons From a Tennis Tantrum

Thom Weidlich 09.10.20


Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 ranked men’s singles tennis player, threw a hissy at the U.S. Open on Sunday and bashed a ball that hit a line judge in the throat. Djokovic was ejected from the tournament, was fined and suffered a blow to his reputation. The incident provides crisis communications lessons even for those of us outside the world of tennis.

Lesson #1: Have some money in the reputation bank

Djokovic’s reputation precedes him. He’s been involved in some iffy situations. Yet, a positive public profile is essential to protect against damage when you inflict yourself with a crisis.

Just last month, Djokovic (pictured) formed a breakaway players association criticized for promoting division. He organized a tour that was lambasted for a lack of social distancing; several players and others tested positive for COVID-19. He also publicly opposed vaccination.

Then there’s the lack of control displayed by the Sept. 6 incident at the New York tournament, which he was strongly favored to win; Djokovic whacked the ball in anger after losing an important point and did not aim at the female judge. Still, one report was headlined “Novak Djokovic’s Latest Misguided Moment Does Irreparable Damage to His Public Image.” Which is not to ignore that he gives generously to charity and has his own foundation to help disadvantaged children.

Lesson #2: Talk to the press

As many news reports mentioned, Djokovic left the stadium without talking to the press. It’s a rare crisis that recommends not communicating with journalists. In this case, Djokovic may have felt he needed to cool down first (not a bad instinct). But the Grand Slam (he’s won 17) demands that the players give interviews. For ignoring reporters, he was fined $7,500 — his total lost prize money and fines from the stunt came to $267,500, according to the Associated Press.

Lesson #3: A genuine apology is a beautiful thing

Crises in which you are at fault (tennis pun intended) require you to actually apologize. The night of the incident Djokovic issued a statement on social media. For all the deserved criticism rained down on him over his temper, the statement was pretty good. In it, he apologized several times: “I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress.” “I apologize to the @usopen tournament and everyone associated for my behavior.” “Thank you and I’m so sorry.”

Two short, sharp sentences in his statement were catnip for the press: “So unintended. So wrong.”

So true.

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