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The Word That Women Need To Stop Saying — Now

Why are we always so quick to say it?

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Up Close Of A Woman biting her lip
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I watch the U.S. Open and marvel at the elusive mysteries of tennis: the speed, form, footwork and power. And, to me, the most elusive of all: women playing tennis without saying “sorry.”

I first picked up a tennis racquet in my late 40s. A group of us hoping to learn doubles met at the middle school courts after dinner for clinics held in the late-day sun. Divided by skill, my foursome typically played on the “lowest court,” routinely hitting balls into the adjacent courts, ruining the higher-level players’ games.

“Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” we’d say.

As a New Beginner (a term surely coined to flag people who’d never played sports growing up), I had a lot to be sorry about for a long time. But eventually, my friends and I got better. We learned to control our shots, place our balls, serve into the opposite box rather than into the back of our own partner’s head. But there was something I quickly noticed about women’s tennis: Even after we had become competent players, we couldn’t stop saying “sorry.”

We’d say sorry if we hit the ball too far from the player we were warming up with, or if we hit it too close and she couldn’t easily send it back. We’d say sorry if our serve was out; when we missed a shot at the net; or if we accidentally hit our opponent in the arm, or the leg, or a secondary sex organ.

We were sorry that we were late, that we had to leave early, that our shoulder was sore, that we hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep, that we didn’t bring balls, that our balls were flat, that we needed to answer our phone in case the pediatrician called to tell us whether our kid has pink eye. “Isn’t that super contagious?” one of us would ask. “It is. Sorry.” “I’m sorry, I need to tie my shoe … to put on sunscreen … to get this bug out of my eye.”

I remember once a woman hit a winner and in the next breath said, “Sorry!”

Men do not appear to do this. The first time I played mixed doubles — a man and a woman on each team — the guy on the other side smashed the ball straight into my partner’s midsection, hitting him so hard his racquet flew across the court. Not only did the smasher not say sorry, he smiled.

Obviously, it is a shortcoming on anyone’s part not to offer an apology if you hit someone with a ball (or anything else, for that matter), and the unfolding of this moment left me stunned. Why are we so quick to run to contrition?

The friends I play tennis with do not lead with an apology in their off-court lives. We don’t show up for coffee or for a walk in the park and enumerate all the ways we may be about to fail each other. And I assure you, no one is sorry that she is winning at tennis.

Of course, we don’t want to disappoint our partner, but it seems like there’s more to it than that. My partner tells me she doesn’t care when I miss, but I keep apologizing.

I’m sorry if I keep making the same mistake, if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there, and if it seems like I’m not pulling my own weight.

My shortcomings can feel like they extend beyond the baseline — a heavy load to carry onto a tennis court.

The other day, I took my place at the net and said to my partner, “I’m going to try and not say sorry for the entire game.” Within three minutes, I had failed.

“Sorry about that,” I laughed.

I will always feel the need to apologize for hitting a bad shot or losing an easy point. What comes out of my mouth is “sorry” — but what I’m really saying is: “Please don’t judge me.”

Sometimes I panic and act without thinking. I’m trying, and I will try harder. I’m saying: That didn’t turn out the way I hoped, but I still need you to like me.

To be clear, I’m not against saying “I’m sorry.” There are plenty of relationships where sorry is a building block, rather than a shorthand form of self-flagellation: in a marriage, with our children, to a friend. These are the places where I wish “sorry” was as reflexive for me as it is when I botch a volley.

I know I will keep offering apologies during tennis. I also know that what I really need to develop (along with my serve, groundstroke, backhand, overheads and footwork) is the voice that offers up that next two words — the ones we say to each other in response to every “sorry”: “It’s OK.”