MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic led the tennis world in mourning for “mentor” Kobe Bryant on Monday after Melbourne Park awoke to the news that the NBA great had died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter and seven others.
Djokovic had spoken fondly of his relationship with the former Los Angeles Laker in an interview at the weekend and the 16-times Grand Slam champion signed off his tweet with the words: “RIP my friend”.
“My heart truly mourns over the news today. Kobe was a great mentor and friend to me,” the Serbian wrote.
“You and your daughter will live forever in our hearts. There are not enough words to express my deepest sympathies to the Bryants and every family suffering from this tragedy.”
Naomi Osaka, who won the women’s title at Melbourne Park a year ago, also called Bryant a mentor as she penned a touching tribute.
“Hey…I don’t really know what to do so I’m writing you this letter,” Osaka posted on Twitter.
“Thank you for being you.
“Thank you for inspiring people everywhere, you have no idea how many hearts you’ve touched. Thank you for being so humble and not acting as big as you are.
“Thank you for caring and checking up on me after my hard losses. Thank you for randomly texting me ‘You ok?’
“Thank you for teaching me so much in the short time I’ve been lucky enough to have known you.
“Thank you for existing. You will forever be my big bro/mentor/inspiration. Love you.”
Djokovic’s great rival Rafa Nadal also joined a cavalcade of top players in expressing his condolences, declaring his “shock” at the news of the death in California of one of the NBA’s all-time greatest players.
“I woke up this morning to this terrible news, super sad,” the Spaniard said on Rod Laver Arena. “He was one of the greatest sportsmen in history.”
Nadal, chasing his 20th Grand Slam title, made the comments after his fourth round victory over Australian Nick Kyrgios, who is a basketball fanatic.
Kyrgios appeared close to tears as he walked out on court in a Los Angeles Lakers shirt with Bryant’s name on the back, which he kept on through the warm-up.
“Basketball is practically my life. I watch it every day. I’ve been following it for as long as I can remember,” the Australian said after his loss.
“When I woke up to the news, it was pretty emotional. It was pretty heavy, all day. Obviously I was having basketball on at my house, watching the games. I was heavy. It’s just tough. It’s horrible news.”
Multiple Grand Slam champion doubles pairing and Lakers fans Bob and Mike Bryan played their final match at Melbourne Park before retirement with yellow tape on the backs of their legs marked with Bryant’s shirt numbers and nickname, Mamba.
Djokovic said at the weekend Bryant had helped him when he was battling an elbow injury and was struggling to “mentally and emotionally handle” working his way back to the top.
Djokovic and Osaka were not the only ones who received support from Bryant, with 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova also stunned by the news.
“This is incredibly difficult to process,” wrote the Russian.
“I will never forget your generosity, and the time you set aside in some of my most difficult moments. I am forever grateful. My heart is with you and your beautiful family.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar)