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Tennis was and has always been Dirk Nowitzki’s first love

Dirk Nowitzki returned to his roots Sunday, using a blistering serve on numerous occasions during his inaugural Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic at SMU.

A 13-time All-Star forward with the Dallas Mavericks, Nowitzki grew up in Germany as a tennis buff. But as he towered over his much shorter competitors, he quickly turned to basketball.

For these guys to make time and come in here from all over the place means a lot to me and the foundation.

The Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki on the celebrities who attended his inaugural Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic

“Tennis was my first love,” said Nowitzki, who assembled a group of his friends Sunday to raise funds for his foundation. “So many guys came out to support this, and I know obviously celebs get pulled in a million directions.

“So for these guys to make time and come in here from all over the place means a lot to me and the foundation.”

Actor Ben Stiller was on hand to support Nowitzki after the two recently met on Twitter.

“I got a direct message on Twitter from Dirk,” Stiller said with a wry smile. “It was rather inappropriate, actually. “No. I follow Dirk, and Dirk followed me, I guess, and I happen to be taking [tennis] lessons.”

In June, Nowitzki hosted his annual charity celebrity baseball game in Frisco. After spending his entire 18-year NBA career with the Mavs, Nowitzki has put down solid roots in Dallas and is raising money to help the less fortunate.

“This is just another sign of Dirk being who he is, and he’s just giving back to the community,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “He’s got the baseball game that he does every spring, and I’m sure this [tennis tournament] is going to turn into a really cool fall event.”

One of the first people with NBA ties to make connect with Nowitzki in the 1990s, Nelson recalls that former Mavs center Chris Anstey and Nowitzki used to engage in some pretty hotly contested tennis matches. When he was younger, Anstey, who played for the Mavs from 1997-’99, was ranked No. 2 in Australia among 15-year olds.

“As you probably heard, Dirk was a pretty darn good tennis player,” Nelson said. “In fact, in his first year [during the 1998-’99 season] he and Chris Anstey used to have some pretty amazing pretty matches.

“Chris was a world-ranked tennis player in Australia, and he and Dirk, back in the day, used to have some pretty crazy awesome tennis matches. Those two guys playing at the net — can you imagine —nothing is going to get over those two guys.”

Nowitzki used his power and talents to fire laser-like serves on Sunday, often leaving opponents dumbfounded.

Tennis pro Andy Roddick, who won the 2003 U.S. Open, was happy to be a part of what Nowitzki hopes will become an annual event.

“I think we’re all happy to be here,’’ Roddick said. “Obviously, I think we’re all huge admirers of Dirk and what he’s done for Dallas and what he continues to do for Dallas. I’m happy to be here and play some average tennis.”

Because of his lineage, Mavs guard J.J. Barea is an above average tennis player.

“My mom is a tennis coach, my uncle is a tennis coach, and I’ve got my four-year old son playing tennis already,” Barea said. “I played tennis all my life. I let it go when I was 13-14 because basketball took over. But it’s always good fun, especially doubles.”

Nowitzki signed a two-year, $50 million contract — the second year is a player’s option — with the Mavs earlier this summer. After that, he could easily retire to hitting the tennis court on a regular basis.

“Tennis is just a sport I was always close to, and I love it,” Nowitzki said. “You can play until you’re 50 to 60. My dad is still out there at [age] 70 playing doubles sometimes. So it’s going to be a sport that I’m going to be playing a long, long time after my career.”

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