Just over a week ago, late on a Monday afternoon with the skies darkening and the time fast approaching 6PM, I picked up my office phone, answering a scheduled call from one of the finest basketball players in the world. Dirk Nowitzki was preparing for his 19th season as an indispensable player for the Dallas Mavericks, and getting ready for the opening of training camp. Nowitzki was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2007. He has led his team into the playoffs over the course of 15 different seasons. He spearheaded the Mavericks to an NBA Championship in 2011. He has been an All-Star player no fewer than 13 times.
But his interview with me is about another passion for this self effacing 38-year-old from Germany. We are talking tennis. The day before, he held his first Dirk Nowitzki Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic in Dallas, joining Andy Roddick, John Isner, Benjamin Becker, Mark Knowles and entertainer Ben Stiller among others for that event, which is the logical starting point for our discussion. What motivated Nowitzki to put on a Pro-Celebrity Classic, and what mattered most about it from his perspective?
He replies, "I have done all sorts of sports for charity. I have done golf, baseball and soccer, but never had actually done something that I really, really love, and that is tennis. We had talked about it for the last couple of years but were never able to pull it off. But this summer we said,'Hey, we are going to do it.' We were a little nervous leading up to the event these last few weeks. It was a little hectic making sure everything was in place. We had some entertainment on Saturday night before the event and some celebs coming in. It was a fantastic weekend."
The first thing I wanted to know was how Nowitzki felt in the presence of Roddick and Isner on the court, especially dealing with their fearsome serves. He answered, "I have hit with Mark Knowles, Tommy Haas and Andrea Petkovic before, so I had played with some really great players. But I have never seen anything like John Isner's serve. I didn't get to play Andy on Sunday so we never matched up against each other. That was a little disappointing. But I did face John twice and told him to bring the heat. But what is different with John is not only is his serve so fast but if he wants to kick it, the ball almost jumps over my head. That is how high he can kick it up. It was an incredible experience to be on court with these guys, really an honor for me that all these guys came in and supported the event. We were thrilled. Every single one of the guys who was brought into play said it was amazing and told me they had so much fun. The celebs were so approachable. I had a great time."
Nowitzki is seven feet tall, and in his trade of basketball is surrounded by players of that size, and those who are even taller. Since he had just shared time on the court and across the net from John Isner, I was curious about his feelings on the future of big men in tennis. Will we see tennis players a decade down the road like the 6'10" Isner or the 6'11" Ivo Karlovic who might walk away with major titles?
Nowitzki responded, "It is tough. Obviously the movement is still a major part of winning tennis matches. I mean, if you watch all these guys who are winning the Slams, there defense is such a big part of it. Djokovic and Murray are the best returners and the best movers on the baseline at getting stuff back and keeping balls in play. For us big guys, that is really tough. The power game is great when you are serving but when you are not it is usually tougher to really get into and dominate the point, unless you are really aggressive off the return. Movement is a very big part of tennis and maybe that is why the big guys haven't broken through all the way at the end [of majors], but they are knocking at the door. They have had some great tournaments."
Many people are unaware of it, but during his youth in Germany, Nowitzki played a lot of tennis and was ranked in the juniors. He started playing the sport when he was four or five years old and stayed with it until he was 15. Asked if he had any thoughts then about becoming a pro tennis player, he says, "I am not sure if I would have made it. I am actually the same age as Tommy Haas so he was kind of in my bracket in Bavaria where I grew up. Tommy was always ranked No.1 in our age group. He was fantastic. Then he left really early for Bollettieri's. I think my highest ranking was No. 5 or 6 so it was not like I was knocking on the door as a junior. I would have had a long way to go. My serve and my forehand back then were huge weapons. I was double the size of some of the kids back then when I was 12 or 13. I was taller than some of my teachers. There is a great tennis photo of me from back then and next to me is this little kid about my age and he barely goes up to my hip. I was able to dominate from my serve against much smaller guys."
But Nowitzki's size was not only a strength, but an impediment as well. As he recalls, "I was a little self conscious. You get teased a little bit by other kids. One of the big reasons why I like basketball is because there were a lot of big guys and I was always around kids who were around my size. Nobody said, 'Hey, how is the air up there?' I like being a team player and the concept of traveling on a bus and being in the locker room with your teammates and the chemistry. In tennis I was at these tournaments and if it was raining all day, everybody was kind of going their own way. Nobody really wanted to talk to you because you were competition. I had a hard time with that. Actually, at 14 and 15, I was a lot better at tennis than basketball, but I chose something that was more fun to me and where I felt more natural and more at home. It was eventually the right decision to play basketball but at the time it was a tough decision to make."
For the better part of a decade, from the age of 15 until he was about 25, Nowitzki hardly played tennis. When he returned to it recreationally, much to his chagrin, he could no longer hit the two-handed backhand. Why was that so? Answering with a question, Nowitzki said, "Why is that? You explain that to me. I mean, I didn't play much anymore for a good ten years. I watched tennis and stayed close to it but all of my free time I was on the basketball court. As you know, at that age you have got to really go for it. I was starting to work out two or three times a day and I didn't have much time for tennis anymore. My double-hander was actually really decent back in the day and then when I picked it back up and I would want to hit it I either shanked or it was going right into the net."
Confused by his inability to execute the two-hander as automatically as he had done as a junior player, Nowitzki turned away from it. "I couldn't explain what was going on," he reflects, "so I went to the one-hander and basically just sliced until I could get to my forehand eventually. The last couple of years I have had a coach here in Dallas who was actually on the tour named Andrew Painter who played in the pro-celeb tournament. He comes over in the summer and hits with me so actually my one-hander is a lot better than it was say five or six years ago."
And yet, while Nowitzki makes certain to maintain his game at a reasonably high level, his higher priority is following the sport through a learned and appreciative pair of eyes. As he clarifies, "I have followed the game really, really close from the late eighties and early nineties to the present. When I started, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were rolling. I have been to Wimbledon a few times and got to meet Federer, so I have had some amazing times. These top players are incredible. I mean, Roger finally has got some injuries now but how long did he play injury free? He plays so smooth. It looks like it is effortless. He does it all with technique and rhythm and not all the power that Nadal needs to get his forehand going. I have actually met him a couple of times and Roger is a wonderful human being so that was a great honor to me."
Having said that, Nowitzki has the utmost of admiration for Nadal. "I have got to say, I am a Nadal guy. In his prime, nobody has ever seen a forehand like his with that power and amount of spin, and the way he swings it over his head it is like a frikkin lasso. It is just amazing. I am a huge Nadal fan. Djokovic to me is one of the best defenders the game has ever seen. He really knows how to create from the return and go get the point from there. He has got no weaknesses and his movement is incredible. He is probably one of the first to start sliding on hard courts. We have never seen that before. His defensive skills and movement are incredible and over the years his serve got better and better."
Turning his attention to Murray, Nowitzki asserts, "He is so much fun to watch. I was happy when he won Wimby for the first time. What a huge lift that was for him and what pressure that was on a Brit to win it. That was amazing. I just love how he fires off at his box. He is just so into it. And Wawrinka has one of the most beautiful one-handed backhands I have ever seen. It has been fun to watch all of these guys."
He has also enjoyed getting to know countryman Boris Becker over the years. As Nowitzki says, "When Boris retired he started being a journalist with his own show on television. So he actually traveled to Dallas one time and we had a long interview for like 45 minutes. He can actually shoot the ball a little bit. He made some 3's and it was fun to watch when we were on the basketball court. I saw him a couple of years ago at Wimbledon again and we talked. I remember when he won Wimbledon at 17 that all of Germany went nuts. He was an incredible talent and I loved that he played with so much emotion and fire. Michael Stich was there at the same time but Stich was more the cooler guy from up north. Everybody could relate more to Boris and that was why he was so loved."
When I asked him to compare Steffi Graf's impact in Germany to Becker's, Nowitzki replies, "They were around in the same amazing era. It is hard to gauge the impact of both. Steffi was No. 1 for so long and the greatest ever for us. When I was a junior we walked by her one time in some athletic facility and we were doing High-Fives with each other for days. She was the queen back then. Her movement was so good and she was such a nice person, but I was never able to meet with her. I did invite her and Andre Agassi to my pro-celeb for the weekend but they had somewhere else to go. That would have been really fun."
Remarkably, Nowitzki loves tennis so deeply that he watches a wide range of tournaments and players in his spare time, often tuning in to Tennis Channel. "Everybody watches the big tournaments but I would say the U.S. and North American Tour is where I watch a lot, when they get to Toronto and Cincinnati and then New Haven leading up to the U.S. Open. Once the U.S. Open is over I need a tennis break so I don't really follow the Asian tour as much. But when the Australian Open is on I am so ready for tennis again and I can't wait for Melbourne again. I am a big fan of tournaments like the French Open and Wimby. I will bring the kids to bed around 9PM when wifey is tired and I am flipping through the channels. NBA Television is a staple and then I just go up one channel to 217 and there is Tennis Channel. I just see what is on. The other day I was watching Davis Cup. Sometimes they show great old matches and coaching stuff from back in the day. I watch as much as I can."
Knowing as much as he does about the intricacies of tennis and having established himself as one of the most accomplished of all basketball players in this era, how does Nowitzki feel about the athletic demands of the two sports comparatively? Are tennis players more prone to injuries than basketball players?
He points out, "The crazy thing to me about tennis is the small amount of time they get off. It has got to be the shortest off season in all of professional sports, with maybe soccer as well. They are always on the go. We have a little more contact obviously in basketball, so we have the rolled ankles and the torn ACL's and stuff like that which comes from a guy pushing on you or leaning on you when you don't expect it. I was talking to some of the tennis guys and they were saying 'Oh, my shoulder here or my elbow there or my quad.' So they play almost all year round and it is an incredible grind. All summer long in the U.S. they are playing in like 90 or 100 degree weather. We are playing in a cool 68 to 70 degrees in the gym, so there are some advantages to playing indoors."
Nowitzki has covered considerable ground, impressing me every step of the way with his thoughtful manner, deep humility, sharp intelligence and unmistakable decency. If all players of his stature shared Nowitzki's sense of perspective and his admirably courteous manner, the world of sports would be an even better place. The interview concludes with Nowitzki talking one last time about his pro celebrity event and where he might go with it in the future.
He concludes, "We don't really know where this goes. We wanted to do one and see how the fans and sponsors reacted. But seeing how the weekend went, I hope we are going to do it for a long, long time. Some of the celebs that came like John Isner and Andy Roddick and even Ben Stiller said 'if you do it again next year we are there. We want to be there if we have time.' Some of the sponsors were so fired up that this is something we could repeat again, so I will just have to see what the timeframe for next year looks like. Timing wise this year, it was right after the U.S. Open when some guys want to take a little break, but we would love to do it again because it was so much fun.