Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one tennis player, has paid a heartfelt tribute to his late friend and mentor Kobe Bryant after winning his 24th Grand Slam title at the US Open. Djokovic, who defeated Daniil Medvedev in straight sets, wore a shirt with the words “Mamba Forever” and a photo of him and Bryant during the trophy ceremony. He also explained how Bryant helped him overcome his struggles with injury and self-doubt.
A close friendship
Djokovic and Bryant became close friends in 2016, when the Serbian star was recovering from an elbow injury that threatened to end his career. Bryant, who was known for his relentless work ethic and competitive spirit, offered Djokovic advice and support on how to deal with the physical and mental challenges of being a professional athlete.
“He was always there for any kind of counsel advice, any kind of support in the most friendly way,” Djokovic said. “He was one of the people that I could always rely on.”
The two also shared a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s achievements. Bryant, who won five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals with the Los Angeles Lakers, praised Djokovic as “one of the greatest ever” in tennis. Djokovic, who has won all four Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic bronze medal, called Bryant “a legend of the Lakers and world basketball”.
A symbolic gesture
Djokovic decided to honor Bryant by wearing a shirt with the number 24, which was the jersey that Bryant wore when he became a legend in the NBA. He also added that 24 was a significant number for him, as it represented his 24th Grand Slam title, which tied him with Margaret Court for the most in history.
“I thought of doing this T-shirt eventually if I got the chance to win the tournament. It was about seven days ago. I didn’t share it with anyone until a few days ago when I asked my people to help me out to make this shirt,” Djokovic said.
Djokovic also said that he felt Bryant’s presence and guidance throughout the tournament, especially in the tough moments. He dedicated his victory to Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
“I felt him today. I felt him every day. I felt him especially in some critical moments when I was facing adversity on the court,” Djokovic said. “This is for him and Gigi.”
A lasting legacy
Djokovic’s tribute to Bryant was widely appreciated by fans and fellow athletes, who recognized the bond between the two champions. Many also commented on how Djokovic embodied Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality”, which is a mindset of pursuing excellence and overcoming obstacles.
Djokovic has shown remarkable resilience and determination in his career, overcoming injuries, controversies, and fierce rivals to become one of the greatest players of all time. He has also used his platform to inspire and help others, especially young players from his country and region.
By honoring Bryant, Djokovic not only showed his gratitude and respect for his friend, but also his commitment to carrying on his legacy. As he said after winning the US Open: “I hope he’s proud of me.”