NBA's Dirk Nowitzki still has a passion for tennis
At 7-feet tall, blasting serves and forehands down the line, he's an intimidating sight on any tennis court.
No, not tennis giants John Isner or Ivo Karlovic — Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.
The 11-time NBA All-Star, No. 19 on the league's all-time scoring list, got his athletic start in tennis. The passion, he said this week, has never left.
It started — he was nationally ranked as a junior in Germany — in part is because of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, who helped launch a tennis boom in his home country, "when everybody started playing."
"Now, when I have some time I try to play almost every day at my court at home in Dallas … It's fun and good for the footwork in the offseason," says Nowitzki, back in action full time for the Mavericks after sitting out the first two months of the season following October knee surgery.
Nowitzki scored in double figures (11 points) for the first time since his return Dec. 23 in a victory Tuesday against the Washington Wizards, and followed that up with 19 Wednesday in a loss to the Miami Heat.
However, the recovery from his first major injury during his 14 years in the NBA has not been easy.
Nowitzki credits the team aspect of the NBA — unlike a tennis star's solitary pursuit — for helping him bounce back.
"For me, it helped to be around my team. They help me and push me forward every day. It was easier to be around teammates, so I can't even imagine going through it alone," Nowitzki says.
Nowitzki gave up tennis at age 15 to pursue basketball, and it wasn't until his mid-20s that he once again picked up a racket.
"When I was 25 or so, I really started to play again in the summers when I didn't practice (basketball)," Nowitzki says. "I actually take lessons now, and have a great coach in Dallas who used to play on the tour a bit."
Nowitzki, 34, is the same age as world No. 21 Tommy Haas, and he recalls the talk when the promising young Haas left Germany at age 12 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy.
So what about it, Dirk, could you have joined Haas as a star in tennis? "I don't think I would have been anywhere close," he says with a smile.
Last summer Nowitzki had a chance to hit with fellow German and former top 10 WTA player Andrea Petkovic, who just last week reinjured her knee at the Hopman Cup, once again ruling her out of the Australian Open.
"I had a chance to hit with Petkovic a little bit after her practice in Germany, and it was great to just see how hard she trained," Nowitzki says. "I think that really motivated me because she really goes hard. I saw she got hurt again the other day. And with her rehab basically all year, last year as well. It's tough, but she's fighter and she'll be back."
Given the NBA's travel schedule, catching a live tennis tournament on the road is tricky, but Nowitzki looks for any opportunity. In 2012, he was able to attend the Sony Ericsson Open and the Dallas Tennis Classic. He calls his three visits to Wimbledon a "blast every single time."
One tournament he looks forward to attending in the future is the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 14 in Melbourne. And just like any true tennis fan, he's not afraid to make his pick for a men's champion this year.
"I was looking forward to (Rafael) Nadal coming back," Nowitzki says. "He's my man. I love watching him play. He's a warrior. But I feel like hardcourt is (Novak) Djokovic's thing. Even though he lost in the U.S. Open final against (Andy) Murray, I still think 'Djoko' is the guy to beat on hardcourt."