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By Blair Henley | Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Knowles

"Roger (Federer) will be fine. He’s so smooth. It looks like he’s never sweating!" says NBA all-star and tennis fan Dirk Nowitzki.

Dirk Nowitzki may have achieved superstar status thanks to his decorated 18-year NBA career, but the 38-year-old isn’t a one-sport athlete. Tennis was his first love, picked up when he was a young boy spending time with his parents at the local tennis courts. He went on to become a solid junior play in his native Germany before quitting to focus on basketball at age 15.

“I think I made the right decision,” joked the 13-time All-Star to a group of reporters in Dallas, Texas, Thursday.

Watch: Stan Wawrinka vs. Jimmy Fallon

The 7-foot tall future Hall-of-Famer stood on the tennis courts at Southern Methodist University to discuss the first Dirk Nowitzki Foundation Tennis Classic taking place there on Sunday. Nowitzki has raised funds for his foundation, which supports a variety of different causes internationally, through charity softball and soccer games in the past – why not tennis? He’ll be joined by Ben Stiller, Andy Roddick, Benjamin Becker, former doubles star Mark Knowles, Mavericks teammates and more for this weekend’s pro-am.

Stiller’s presence on Sunday’s celebrity roster is a testament to Nowitzki’s star power. “We haven’t really met, but I knew he followed me on Twitter,” Nowitzki explained with a laugh. “I just slid into his DMs, as the kids say these days.”

After speaking with the media, Nowitzki showed off his tennis skills in a short hit with Knowles. With plenty of spin on his forehand, a serviceable one-handed backhand and a serve befitting of his size, he will no doubt hold his own against the other Tennis Classic participants. Following his mini-practice session, he changed his sweat-soaked shirt and sat down with Tennis Now to talk about his pro-tennis posse, his tennis fandom and his one-hander.

Tennis Now: We have to start with the US Open. Did you watch? What were your thoughts?

Dirk Nowitzki: I did watch. I loved it. I just got back from Germany, so I only caught the end of Wawrinka-Djoko. I watched the women’s final, of course, and Angelique was representing for Germany. I met her at Wimbledon when I was there a few years ago. I’m so happy for her. She’s a warrior, a fighter, feisty, with no real weaknesses.

TN: As a tennis fan, you’ve met a lot of players. Any you’re particularly close to?

Dirk Nowitzki: Benjamin Becker is one. I met him when I was at Wimbledon the first time. He’s like, “I went to school at Baylor. I watch your games all the time.” I’ve known him for 10-plus years. I know Tommy Haas; we were both born in ‘78. We met one time when I was 13 at some Bavarian championship, but he left pretty early for Bollettieri’s. He’s already invited me out to Indian Wells! I’ll make it out there eventually.

I’ve gotten to know some of the American players, too. I met Mardy Fish a couple of years ago, and he’s a great guy. We actually text back and forth. We have a little chat room going - James Blake, me and Mardy. The stuff that goes in there every other day is awesome (laughs).

TN: You were the top junior tennis player until the age of 14 or 15. What was the main reason you quit?

Dirk Nowitzki: I think basketball was just getting to be more fun. When you’re young [as a tennis player], you drive to all these tournaments, and it rains and you sit in the car by yourself. All these guys don’t want get too close because they think you’re competition. I liked the team setting more. I liked the road trip, the bus with my friends. Ultimately that helped me make the decision, but also the height and my [issues with] movement helped to make the decision for basketball.

TN: When did you get back into tennis?

Dirk Nowitzki: After I quit at 15, I didn’t play for about 10 years. It’s weird, I used to have a double-handed backhand, and I loved it. When I picked it back up after 10 years, it was completely gone (laughs). I didn’t know how to hold it, and I shanked it all the time. I decided to try the one-handed slice first. Then I started taking some lessons. I got a little better with the one-hander and had a little more confidence.

TN: You have the Grigor Dimitrov finish going on.

Dirk Nowitzki: Nice! That’s great. That’s a compliment.

Dirk Nowitzki

TN: You had arthroscopic knee surgery at 34, just like Roger Federer. Was there a concern that you might not make it back?

Dirk Nowitzki: I think you’re a little worried, but you take it day after day. You attack rehab, you attack practices, you try to see little improvements so you can get back out there as quickly as possible. [Roger] will be fine. He’s so smooth. It looks like he’s never sweating! It’s incredible how long he played without being hurt.

TN: I know you’re a big Rafa fan as well.

Dirk Nowitzki: I love Rafa. It’s hard to decide. All of them are so good. I like Nole in a way, too. And Murray, always cussing at his box. They are all characters, so it’s tough to choose one. I love Wawrinka’s backhand. I do follow the German guys, too. I watched Zverev a couple of years ago at [the Dallas Challenger]. I follow the German girls. I actually invited Sabine [Lisicki] here, but I think she’s in China.

TN: After Rafa lost in the fourth round at the US Open, he got a question about the pressure that can creep in when you may not have another chance to win a Slam or another Championship. What are your thoughts on that?

Dirk Nowitzki: I don’t think you can think that way. It limits you. You just go from match to match, game to game. If you have too much stuff in the back of your mind, thinking “Is this the last time?” it limits your performance. You go in every match or game like it’s your last. You go hard and when you’re done, your body knows it and your mind knows it.

Dirk Nowitzki

10-Second Slice

TN: Who would be your tennis player alter ego?

Dirk Nowitzki: Hmmm. I do get fired up at times on the court. I’m usually really laid back off the court, but on the court I can get a little feisty.

TN: A little Andy Murray, maybe?

Dirk Nowitzki: Maybe a little Andy! That would be a good one (laughs).

TN: If you could steal a shot from any tennis player, what would it be?

Dirk Nowitzki: Used to be the Tommy Haas backhand. He’s my guy. His one-hander was so pure, but now it’s got to be Wawrinka’s backhand. It’s so solid, but so fast.

TN: If your racket could describe your personality, what would it say?

Dirk Nowitzki: Stiff? (Laughs.) Well, probably solid, but soft in parts.

TN: How many racquets have you broken in tennis career?

Dirk Nowitzki: I play with extreme topspin, so my strings break all the time. I’ve thrown my racquet around a little bit, but not to the point where I’m enraged, throwing it over the fence or something.

TN: What is the one thing you hear most often from your coach?

Dirk Nowitzki: Mark [Knowles] just told me today that I’m leaning back on my forehand too much. I need to make sure I’m stepping in on my forehand.

For more information on the Dirk Nowitzki Foundation Tennis Classic, click here.


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