DALLAS - A decade ago Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks were battling the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, on their way to the 2011 NBA championship.
It would’ve been absurd at the time – May 19, 2011 – to project that 10 years down the road Dirk would be focused on hitting one-handed tennis backhands with ATP star John Isner and his old basketball team would be void of any future playoff success. But, sure enough, here we are.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have seen that one coming,” Nowitzki said of the Mavs’ 10-year postseason series drought. “I thought we were set up for a good run. And now we’ve got Luka and some really good players. But … you never know. This time of the year I usually think about our championship but, honestly, it feels like 20 years ago.”
While the Mavs will attempt to win a playoff series for the first time since beating the Miami Heat to win the title in 2011 when they face the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 Saturday, Dirk’s new sporting obsession is gaining traction in DFW.
Nowitzki and Isner (the No. 1 American’s men’s player for the last decade) were the star attractions at SMU’s tennis complex Wednesday morning, where the ATP announced it was returning to Dallas with a big-time tournament in February 2022. The Dallas Open will be a 250 (mid-level) tournament and the tour’s only indoor championship in the United States.
“What a big day for Dallas,” said Monica Paul, Dallas Sports Commission Executive Director. “As far as generating interest and revenue and further positioning Dallas as a sports destination, this event will hit the mark.”
Having hung up his Hall-of-Fame Flamingo Fadeaway after the Mavs’ 2019 season, Dirk says he’s rediscovering the first sport he played as a kid in Germany. He plays a couple times a week, hosts his own charity tournament through his foundation and often hits with Isner, a Dallas resident and 15-time winner on the tour.
“He’s got a monster serve and a big game,” Isner said of Dirk. “He obviously made the right decision with basketball, but he could’ve been a pro on the tennis tour for sure.”
Says Dirk, “After 21 years on the hardwood I kind of struggle to move around. But I grew up idolizing Boris Becker and Steffi Graf and I love the game.”
Isner didn’t rule out petitioning the Dallas Open for a Wild Card doubles exemption with Nowitzki.
The tournament – which will follow the Australian Open and begin the ramp-up to elite tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif. and Miami in March – is expected to draw 2,500 spectators to SMU’s Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex. Professional tennis in Dallas in recent years has been limited to Challenger events (think G League hoops) at T Bar M.
The Dallas Open could be the long-awaited bridge connecting the area’s rich tennis history with its current insatiable throng of local players, teams and premier facilities.
Says Isner, “No doubt about it, Dallas is a tennis-hungry city.”
From 1971-89, the WCT Finals were played in Dallas at SMU’s Moody Coliseum and later Reunion Arena. Those tournaments hosted icons such as Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, and even created the Mavs’ memorable “Moody Madness” when it booked Reunion in the Spring of 1984 and forced Dallas to play its decisive Game 5 against the Seattle Supersonics at a cramped, chaotic SMU.
When he’s not tweaking his tennis game, Dirk says he keeps up with the current Mavs and is optimistic about their first-round series against a very familiar opponent.
“They had a great series in the bubble, with some incidents I’m sure the Mavs will remember,” said Dirk, referring to the Clippers’ Marcus Morris’ accidentally-on-purpose stepping on Luka Doncic’s already injured ankle. “It’s a fun rivalry and it should be a great series. I’m hoping we can get them this time.”
As for advice for Doncic, who has replaced Dirk as the face of the Mavs, “Just keep doing what he does. He can dominate the game in so many ways. It’s just fun to sit back and watch him play.”