“It broke my heart when I heard the news three years ago, but his spirit was there last night. I felt it,” Djokovic, 36, shared during a Monday, September 11, appearance on Today. “And 24 is the jersey that he wore when he became a legend of the world basketball and Lakers, and I felt it was appropriate to pay tribute to him with the 24th Slam.”
Following his Men’s Final victory over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday, September 10, Djokovic sported a “Mamba Forever” shirt in honor of Bryant, who died at the age of 41 in January 2020 alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. The tennis pro’s blue and yellow shirt featured a picture of himself and Bryant, as well as the number 24 on the back in honor of the basketball star’s iconic jersey number.
“Him and I were close. He was extremely supportive and very kind and generous to me when I was down and had to undergo a surgery about six years ago, and trying to work my way up,” Djokovic continued on Monday. “I had a lot of doubts, mental challenges, and he was there for me. We had numerous conversations about the mentality, you know, he was guiding me through the process. And I couldn’t be more thankful to him and everything he has done for me, but also for athletes around the world. His legacy lives forever.”
In a separate post-match interview on Sunday, Djokovic revealed he had the idea of sporting the memorial T-shirt for his 24th Grand Slam win for a while before bringing it to life. “I didn’t share it with anyone until a few days ago when I asked my people to help me out to make these shirts,” he said at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York.
He went on to state that Bryant “was always there for any kind of council advice, any kind of support, in the most friendly way.”
Days after Bryant’s death, Djokovic honored his friend following his quarterfinal win at the 2020 Australian Open. “He was my mentor, my friend, and it’s just heartbreaking to see and to hear what has happened to him and his daughter,” he said before breaking into tears.
In January 2020, a helicopter flight from Los Angeles carrying Bryant, Gianna, pilot Ara Zobayan, baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Kerri, their daughter Alyssa, basketball coach Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton, crashed less than an hour after takeoff in Calabasas. Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters Natalia, 20, Bianaka, 6, and Capri, 4.
Djokovic, for his part, shares son Stefan, 8, and daughter Tara, 6, with his wife, Jelena, whom he married in 2014. Sunday’s match marked the athlete’s fourth U.S. Open Grand Slam win, having previously done so in 2011, 2015 and 2018.