Novak Djokovic is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
I first met Novak Djokovic about 10 years ago at the ATP Masters event in Madrid. He was only a teenager then, just getting started in his career, and I had just retired from 16-year NBA basketball career and moved to Madrid with my family. I was able to watch him play a few matches there—out of basketball, soccer, all of the sports, tennis is my favorite sport—but this was not the first I had heard of this kid from Belgrade.
I am much older than Novak—almost 20 years his senior—but when I was playing basketball in the States, I heard about this very talented kid playing tennis and I started to follow him. When he was about 18, I was finally able to meet him in Madrid and since then, we have become good friends. Our busy schedules do not allow us to spend a lot of time together, but I really follow his career, especially because later on I became the head of Serbia’s Olympic Committee. He has participated in two Olympics, but hopefully he will win the gold for Serbia at the Rio Games in 2016.
For many years, it was hard for the Serbs to find something to be proud of. But Novak has done that for us. He has done so much for his country and for his people. He understands what it means to be a role model for those kids, not just in Serbia but all around the world. And he achieved it all on his own. He didn’t have the support of a system—he started as a kid with only his family behind him. Now when you look at all of the results and how he achieved them, you see the will and the work ethic and what it took to build a team like he did.
In my NBA career, I had the chance to play against Michael Jordan. And Novak reminds exactly me of Jordan. They both have this ability to focus and turn everything off and do the right thing. It’s this look in his eyes—Novak is the only player besides Michael that you can see in his eyes that something is happening in that moment that he is going to turn it on. And that’s what’s amazing in Jordan’s career and also in Novak’s.
In my eyes, he is the best athlete in the world. But besides his achievements on the court, there are a lot of things he does off the court that people don’t know about. His foundation, which helps with early childhood education projects in Serbia, and the other charity work he does, helps people around the world. He became a husband and father and that’s another thing that I’m sure he is going to do well in.
He is a complete person. You can’t find anything that questions if this guy is for real. During his childhood he knew his goals and what he wanted to do. He went step by step to reach those goals. And I’m sure he’s not done. He is going to keep going.
And the way he presents himself to the public. As athletes, we don’t have a choice to be role models or not. We are role models. To the kids, to other athletes, to everyone. And he is doing everything. He goes to Roland Garros, he talks French. He goes to Rome, he talks Italian. He goes to China, he talks Chinese. Wherever he goes he speaks the language. He amazes me everyday.
That right there tells you that he’s learning everyday. A lot of guys are happy with what they have achieved. They are really comfortable. But Novak is the kind of guy who always tries to take the extra step and that’s what makes him a true Sportsman. It’s great to have to that kind of person representing you, your nation and your country. We are so proud of him. In my eyes, he is No. 1.