They see passing lanes and victories on the court that others in their sports cannot.
Novak Djokovic plays tennis. Jokic loves basketball. Serbian sports fans will never forget June.
Two once-in-a-generation athletes who grew up roughly 2 1/2 hours apart in a country not much larger than Colorado are competing for trophies that might immortalize them.
A Serbian sweep at the French Open and NBA Finals would award Djokovic his 23rd grand slam, Jokic his first NBA trophy, and Denver its first basketball championship.
They aren’t close—”I don’t have his number, to be honest,” Jokic says—but they’re following each other right now, inspired by their fellow countryman’s success.
“NBA league is the biggest and most important basketball league in the world,” Djokovic said in an interview at the French Open, where he is seeded third and scheduled to play his quarterfinal match on Tuesday. “To be the best player in that league for three years is stunning.”
Denver supporters were snubbed when Joel Embiid of the 76ers earned MVP this season instead of Jokic, who won in 2021 and 2022. Djokovic understands being an underdog. Even though no one has won more Grand Slams than him, the tennis world has typically preferred Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal above “Djoker.”
The finest basketball teams thrive on collaboration, while the best tennis players master a one-on-one game where the hardest opponent is frequently oneself, yet the two Jokers are more alike than you would think.
Both guys needed peak conditioning in their early careers.
Djokovic resigned after losing the first two sets of his quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2006, claiming a weak back. Blisters, disorientation, sore throats, and difficulties breathing plagued him throughout his career.
Djokovic claims a fresh commitment to exercise and a gluten-free diet—he published a book about it—helped. Djokovic is known for his endurance in long matches. He has won all but one Grand Slam since 2009.
After the Nuggets blew an 11-point lead in Game 7 of the 2019 playoffs semifinals against the Trailblazers, Jokic had an epiphany. The Nuggets trainer had long told Jokic that his potential was infinite if he worked out more. Jokic joined.
He shed 20–25 pounds, but he’s still no Adonis or Djokovic. “Early on, being the best player he could be was not necessarily about a skill set,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It was about maturing, growing up, dealing with adversity, referees, getting into the best shape of his life, losing weight. That coincides with our growth over the previous five seasons.”
Basketball’s all-around big man and tennis’ longest-ranked player have handled their platforms differently.
Djokovic, from Belgrade, Serbia, is outspoken and controversial. He was disqualified from the 2022 Australian and U.S. Opens for refusing COVID-19 vaccination. This month in Paris, he has been criticized for discussing ethnic Serb-NATO peacekeeper violence in northern Kosovo.
Djokovic stated he couldn’t have a drama-free Grand Slam. “It drives me too.”
Denver’s Joker doesn’t get involved in international issues, and if criticism of his game or attitude drives him like Djokovic, he keeps it to himself. Mostly basketball.
In 2018, the NBA fined him $25,000 for using a homophobic slur. This year’s playoffs saw the Suns owner Mat Ishbia incident.