With the recent passing of basketball player Kobe Bryant, it is important to look at how many athletes he was able to influence. In an interview during the 2019 U.S. Open, when asked who his favorite tennis player was, Bryant said, “Djokovic is my guy.” At the 2020 Australian Open, after the recent death of the star basketball player and his daughter Giana, Novak Djokovic expressed his condolences and remembered the meetings he had with Bryant and spoke of their similar mentality.
The mentality of these two athletes is something rare, something shared by the greats — athletes like Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Maradona, Lance Armstrong and Nadal are some that come to mind. But for now, I will concentrate of the 2020 Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic.
The Day of the Final
While it is winter in most of the world, it was plain summer in Melbourne, Australia on Feb. 2. The heat was radiating, and the country had recently suffered one of the most destructive bushfires in Australian history, followed by terrible floods. The atmosphere of the tournament was special because the spectators and the players were conscious of the disasters and took advantage of the situation to create awareness and raise money. Plus, of course, it was the final.
I watched the match on my laptop with an Argentinian ESPN transmission, and it was 2 a.m. in the morning in California. Novak Djokovic, a 33-year-old with 17 Grand Slam titles, faced a much younger opponent, 26-year-old Dominic Thiem. Thiem had not won a Grand Slam yet, but he had been gaining a massive amount of experience over the last few years.
The athletic ability of the two players was an experience to watch. Djokovic can stretch his body to reach balls at an impossible speed. He is notorious for returning serves and ultimately breaking the opponents serve. For those who don’t watch tennis much, the game works more to your favor when you are serving the ball. But when you can break the serve, that means you have a better statistical advantage to win the set, since now your opponent must break your serve. In the case of Djokovic, that is his specialty.
On the other hand, we have Thiem, who demonstrated incredible speed and explosiveness throughout the tournament and had been hitting the ball at impressive angles, throwing the spectators in disbelief.
The first set of the match went to Djokovic, which was expected because of his great returns, impeccable form and very few mistakes. Nevertheless, the next two sets went to Thiem, and that completely threw people off. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but Thiem showed amazing determination and strength.
Djokovic differed from Thiem, looking tired and irritated. During the third set, Djokovic got two time violations for serving, and you could see how that completely disturbed his concentration. He got so angry at the umpire that he lightly touched the umpire’s feet during a break, sarcastically telling him he was doing a “great job.”
After seeing his physical and mental condition in the third set, I believed he was done. The score was 2-1 for Thiem and he only needed one more set to win the tournament. All the odds were against Djokovic. Before starting the fourth set, he requested a medical check, and he went on to the locker room for a couple of minutes and then came back. For some reason, Djokovic looked different. He looked energized and determined starting the fourth set. What followed next was an act of pure tennis perfection, something unnatural that only the best can do. It was hard to understand if you think like a normal person.
It was 4-3 in the fourth set, Djokovic was winning and Thiem was serving to get the equalizer 4-4 and potentially go to a decider. But Djokovic broke him, leading him to a 5-3 advantage. That’s all it took for him to defeat Thiem mentally. What followed was Djokovic winning the fifth set 6-4 in the same way and winning the Australian Open.
The Mamba Mentality
The fourth set embodied Kobe Bryant’s philosophy: the “mamba mentality.” This refers to having a mental will and determination to win that goes beyond the physical. It is a metaphysical enquiry that transcends the normal state of the highest athletes.
The fact is that Thiem was superior to Djokovic, and he defeated him in the third set. The reality is that Djokovic transcended the conditions of the match and decided to let himself flow. He possesses the ability to get out of his “logical” head and play with what some people would call soul, heart, intuition or energy. It is something unexplainable, but it has the same quality Kobe Bryant showed when he was under pressure to tie or win a game in overtime.
Kobe put the whole team on his back. His willingness to reach purity in his movements allowed him to be one of the best basketball players of all time. Djokovic gave a hero-like performance, and defeated Thiem in the fourth set, mentally. Djokovic knew that it would only take one time to break him, and after that he would win. He was one break away, one inch away, one movement away. That’s all it took to defeat Thiem.
Normal people would give up. Even some of the best athletes normally stop playing the game when they are losing bad and their heads are not in it. But it is at that point that the greatest use their to will to overcome their circumstances. It is their willingness to persevere and have a positive attitude in the face of adversity that elevates them to a hero, at least in the world of sports. That’s what Djokovic showed, and that’s why he is one of the best tennis players of all time.
Non-tennis watchers, non-sports watcher and everyone, this is a lesson for life. When you are at a job you don’t like, in a place you don’t want to be, in a situation where the negatives surpass the positives, just remember, you have the capacity to transcend that condition. What I mean is that we usually get stuck in a negative mindset, and sometimes that becomes our day-to-day reality.
The reality is that we have the power or capability to change our view on things. This may sound cliché, but it is the truth. Many people spend their entire lives telling themselves the same story, and many people don’t act. Well, if Djokovic did something unhuman, it follows that we think of it as impossible. The reality is that it only took him one break to win the mental battle. So, when we face something that seems impossible, remember that we may only be one break away. That is the mamba mentality and that is how heroes think.