Feature | Water polo

Trophy hunter Maro Jokovic: Addicted to winning

Sacrifice, shunning social media and enjoying lessons from defeat... these are just a few of the things that made Jokovic a Croatian water polo legend.

By Andrew Binner ·

Maro Jokovic has won every trophy water polo has to offer, but he still gets nervous.

Jokovic’s international CV reads two-time world champion, Olympic champion, and Olympic silver medallist. And his most memorable in-game moment? A hat-trick in the London 2012 final, which helped Croatia land its first Olympic gold medal in the sport.

“It still happens to me, even before matches I know we will win by 10 goals, with no chance of losing, I still feel a slight nervousness, some cramps in my stomach. While I am having them, it makes me feel good," he told told FINA.org.

Four years after that Olympic triumph, the 6-foot-8 winger was pivotal again as the ‘Barracudas’ narrowly lost the Rio 2016 final to Serbia.

The accolades don’t stop there. At club level he has won a record 35 titles, playing for Croatian side VK Jug, Pro Recco in Italy, and Greek giants Olympiacos.

The 33-years-old now has another chance of Olympic glory after helping his nation clinch the final Tokyo 2020 men's qualifying berth in dramatic fashion.

READ: Olympic water polo at Tokyo 2020: Top five things to know

Maro Jokovic in action during the London 2012 Olympics.

Early career

Basketball enjoys similar popularity to water polo in Croatia, and, unsurprisingly, man-mountain Jokovic also played the ball sport growing up.

“True, I was training basketball for a while, but it’s not worth mentioning, though I still like to watch some basketball matches,” the Dubrovnik native recalled.

But living by a bay that had a sea-water polo pitch set up, there was only ever going to be one winner.

“After water polo, it’s my favourite sport.”

At just 20-years-old, Jokovic became a hero of the national team.

While trailing arch-rivals Hungary in the 2007 World Championships final, he scored an equaliser to force extra-time, in which Croatia sealed the title.

But instead of basking in glory, realised it was just the start of his journey.

“What followed later was a need to improve,” he said.

“When you come out of anonymity, then your rivals start analysing you, following you, then there is a need to push some boundaries. What you did yesterday, everyone knows today, so you have to do something new, something different.”

An athlete, and a scholar

Speaking of anonymity, the 2012 world player of the year’s victories are anything but restricted to the water.

Despite maintaining a rigorous training schedule, the burly athlete was an excellent economics student, graduating as one of the top in his class.

This was only possible through resisting temptation.

“In my opinion, the high school period is crucial,” the father of three continued.

“This is the period of first dates, enjoying the company of friends, going for drinks... I had a great work ethic, but it was my parents who positively insisted on having school as the primary goal." - Maro Jokovic

“It requires a good organisation of time. It’s not easy today, all the commitments take time, from school, sports, friends, but if the time is well managed... everything can be done.”

Jokovic certainly isn’t scared of trying new things though, and in 2013 found the time to make his modelling debut as the face of fashion designer Ivana Barac’s new collection.

The Croatian captain is hard-working, humble, and old school.

He has publicly admitted his disdain for social media, and doesn’t spend any time posting pictures online.

Instead, he enjoys relaxing with a good book. He reads everything from classic fiction to, perhaps fittingly for a water polo captain, books on war tactics.

“I read six or seven Hemingway books when we were in Australia in December 2019. Then even ‘Don Qujxote’,” he continued. 

“Now I’m reading Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War.’”

The importance of ‘upgrading’

This thirst for knowledge might well be the secret to Jokovic’s success.

Despite having been at the top of an ultra-physical world of water polo for 16 years and counting, he has never stopped wanting to improve his game.

“We all have to do it, no matter how old you are. I still do that today,” he revealed.

“As the years go by, the upgrade is a little different. How to make the best, (out of myself) with less expenditure?

“When you are younger, you can work harder at speed, power, shot strength... Each career period carries something of its own. It’s just important to think about this upgrade because if you don’t work on yourself after the initial burst, you will remain only a potential big player. You will remain average.”

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“Water polo taught me to cope with the defeats in life more easily”

While Jokovic is undoubtedly best-known for his glittering resume of water polo victories, it is the losses he treasures the most in terms of life lessons.

Most professional athletes will tell you that the best thing about their careers is that they get to travel and do what they love for a living, but the Croatian sees it differently.

“Water polo taught me to cope with the defeats in life more easily,” he said.

“Matches lost, but never battles. These are all things that happen. You fall, but you rise again. Then the next big thing that sport gave me is relying on teamwork. We can all be great individuals, but the whole world is based on team efforts.

“It is easier to navigate through life when you have been in sport for a long time, where there is first of all discipline, organisation, people you depend on, but also people who depend on you.”

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“I’ll endure longer… Maybe for 10 more years!”

Jokovic may be reaching the twilight of his career, but his teammates are still very dependent on his experience and talent.

At 33-years-old, ‘Mr. Consistency’ hasn’t lost any of his desire to be the best.

“Despite all the titles I have won, I am glad that I still have the will and desire to win again,” he said.

"So when I seem to reach the maximum age... I’ll endure longer... Maybe for 10 more years!”