Mental Health

Novak Djokovic serves up a mental health learning moment

September 17, 2021

As one of the founders of Minded, I talk a lot about mental health in our home. My kids know that I’ve grappled with anxiety and insomnia for years, and I encourage them to be open about their own emotions. But when I took my 12-year-old son, Jackson, to the U.S. Open men’s tennis finals on Sunday night, I wasn’t expecting the topic to take center court. 


Jackson and I have a long-standing tradition of going to sporting events together, and we were super excited to see our favorite tennis player, Novak Djokovic. We splurged and called in a favor to get tickets—our first at a U.S. Open final, and the best seats either of us ever had for a sporting event of this importance. 


Djokovic had a lot at stake. A win against opponent Daniil Medvedev would earn him his 21st men’s Grand Slam title—more than any player in history, including legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. We had every confidence that Djokovic would clinch it. He was ranked number one in the world, and while excellent, Medvedev had yet to win even a single Grand Slam.


Besides, Djokovic had some serious mental fortitude on his side. “He’s a master at not beating himself and allowing you to do it to yourself… He’s mentally tough,” tennis great John McEnroe told the New York Post last year.


Djokovic demonstrated that mental toughness more than ever in 2021, winning the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. If he won the U.S Open, it would also be the first time since 1969 that a men’s player took home all four Grand Slams in one calendar year. 

Minded founder David Ronick with his son Jackson at the U.S. Open


Unfortunately, the match didn’t go as we had hoped. Medvedev dominated Djokovic, pulling off a shocking straight-set victory. It was clear that the pressure was more than Djokovic could handle. He made a lot of unforced errors, which is uncommon for him. He buried his face in his towel between games. And at one point he got so frustrated, he smashed his racket to pieces. 


New York tennis fans are some of the toughest around and haven’t always embraced Djokovic. But the empathy that night was palpable among the 20,000 people in the audience. We could see him struggling, and we cheered him on as much as we could at every point. He signaled his appreciation, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, Djokovic just couldn’t muster up enough of his signature mental toughness to overcome the pressure. 

Part of me is very sad… this loss was a tough one to swallow.”


The crowd was deflated. Jackson was particularly upset. His eyes welled up, and he wanted to leave as soon as the match was over. But I suggested we stay to watch the award ceremony. I wanted to hear what the players would say when they accepted their awards, hoping to gain some insights about how someone as great as Djokovic reacts to a stunning, public failure and mental meltdown. 


In the past, Djokovic has said that he views the willingness to be open about his own vulnerability as a positive—for him and for others. I had a feeling he would put that vulnerability on display again.


I wasn’t wrong. When asked about the match during the ceremony, Djokovic held a towel over his face and cried. Then he fought through the tears and began to get the words out, saying: “Part of me is very sad… this loss was a tough one to swallow.” The pressure had been too much, even for someone who prided himself on mental toughness. “I feel relief," he continued. "I was glad it was over because the buildup for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks was just a lot. It was a lot to handle. I was just glad that finally the run is over.” 


To see someone so strong own up to his mental vulnerability was incredibly powerful. No matter how good you are, or how hard you try, you will fail sometimes in the face of mental pressure. But admitting that vulnerability can make you stronger, and can make people feel empathy and love for you. Jackson and I left that night disappointed in Djokovic’s loss, but with even more respect for him as a human. It’s a mental health conversation I know we will continue to have in our home for years to come.

About the author

This article was written by Minded co-founder David Ronick. David takes an antidepressant daily, and controlled medications for anxiety and sleep occasionally, as-needed.


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