French Open Wins Turn Older Stars Back Into Heroes

Originally published on June 4, 2011 11:40 am
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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time now for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Sometimes, there's nothing more exciting than a great athlete, growing older, like the rest of us, who rouses themselves to give one more great performance. Dirk Nowitzki and Roger Federer both upset their opponents this week with stellar wins.

NPR's sports reporter Mike Pesca joins us. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE PESCA: Sure. I wasnt sure whether you were going with Dirk, Roger, me or you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, you and I would be in a separate category.

PESCA: Yes.

SIMON: And I'm not sure wed have much of a following.

NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki, he sunk the final basket to cap off a fourth quarter comeback by the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat. One point, the Heat were up by 15 points. Great performance. Raises the question: can they do it again?

PESCA: They probably can do it again because you'd have to think that Miami, whos so athletic and they have such great players, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, this has got to be a huge blow to their confidence. I mean they say its not but LeBron James, he was eliminated very quickly the last time he was in the finals and so much really comes down to him. During that fourth-quarter collapse...

SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: ...everyone focuses on the shots made at the end. But what about all the Heat shots that were missed? And a lot of it was just LeBron James not distributing the ball, dribbling around at the top of the key and then hoisting up three-pointers desperately, which is really weird since his teammate Dwayne Wade had 36 points and was as hot as a Heat could be. So Nowitzki gets all the credit for being clutch. But what the Heat did and what LeBron did does raise significant question marks.

SIMON: Well, as a Cavaliers fan, I have to tell you, LeBron has a checkered career in the finals, doesn't he?

PESCA: There is a Cavs to Mavs movement that a lot of Cavs fans are putting an M over the C on their shirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And this is one of the reasons why this is the highest rated finals, because LeBron James is a player that most of America doesn't live in South Florida have decided they do not like. And it's just a little subtle things, it's not a player who you don't like and he turns you off of the sport, hes become of a player because of his celebrating...

SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: ...because of his impressions, that people love not to like, and thats the sort of thing that drives interest.

SIMON: And I mean and it was same with Reggie Jackson and he got a lot of commercials because of it, so...

PESCA: Absolutely. Because hes not, deep down he doesnt seem like a bad guy at all.

SIMON: And speaking of commercials, we can't leave basketball without noting that Shaquille O'Neal retired this weekend. Who are we going to miss more, Shaq the player or Shaq the personality?

KELLY: Well, Shaq the player was just unstoppable, except for on the free-throw line and during his retirement he said he talked to his dad, the Army sergeant and said dad, I should have listened to you. If I had just learned to shoot free-throws better I'd be number one on the all-time scoring list. Hes number five. But what a fun personality, what a charismatic guy. I think a lot of us who are fans look at pro athletes and say why all the angst? Why do they seem so angry? And Shaq just didnt. He seemed to, you know, embody the idea of hey, if I was a basketball player I just have fun with it. And Shaq just had fun with it.

SCOTT: French Open, women's final between the sixth of seed Li Na of China, defending champion Francesca Schiavone...

PESCA: Yeah.

SIMON: ...is underway right now. And, of course, Roger Federer turned back the clock and dominated Djokovic in their match yesterday.

What can we expect from another Nadal-Federer, a classic?

PESCA: Right. So Djokovic ended his 43-game winning streak and Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. But the thing is Nadal has beaten Federer twice as much from head to head. But the thing about the thing is that Nadal is so great on clay and most of those victories have occurred on clay. And, of course, the French Open is on clay. So if Nadal is the greatest clay player of all time and Federer is the greatest player of all time these matches are usually epic. And lets hope we get one of those again.

SIMON: And you do have to wonder. I mean Djokovic has been on such a run and Roger Federer may not be able to last the number of sets that he is accustomed to.

PESCA: Thats true. Although, if you wanted to ask me, so what would be an event that would argue for Federer being able to beat Nadal.

SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: If you then told me that well, he beat Djokovic, given how great Djokovic was playing, I'd say then he has a great chance. Also, hes Roger Federer.

SIMON: Yeah. Right.

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SIMON: Of course. And that's all you need many times.

PESCA: Thats right.

SIMON: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much.

PESCA: Youre welcome.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time now for sports.

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SIMON: Li Na beat Francesca Schiavone - why do I - Schiavone. Well, she lost, in two sets today to win the French Open Women's Championship. Li Na becomes the first singles player from China to ever win a Grand Slam tournament.

NPR's Mike Pesca joins us. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE PESCA: Absolutely.

SIMON: Li Na was pretty convincing, wasn't she?

PESCA: She has a great and exciting game because there's nothing really that stands out about it except how overall solid she is. And she is so fast, she gets to all these balls and so even on a surface that she herself admitted wasn't her (unintelligible) clay, she said, I didn't think I could win on clay. She makes winning a possibility in every game.

And I do think that this is something of a watershed moment because, like you said, no Chinese national has ever won a Grand Slam single event. From the time we woke up this morning to now, I think we have a new, either most or one of the most popular female athletes on the planet. And I just say that because China gets behind their athletes. They always vote the basketball player Yao Ming on to the all-star team, even when he's hurt and doesn't play. I was just looking at Li Na's Wikipedia page, it's up to 7,500 words, which is like 3,000 more than Martina Hingis - a slightly more accomplished tennis player.

So, I think Li Na is going to be a marketing sensation. And she has a great personality. She speaks English, she's funny, she thanks the ball boys in victory. How often do you see that?

SIMON: Yeah, well, all right. Well, good to have her there in the top tier.

Of course, in the men's semi-final yesterday, Roger Federer seemed to turn back the clock, back to 2007. I mean, Novak Djokovic hadn't lost in, what, five months?

PESCA: It was 43 straight, which was a record and so everyone had said, well, we're not going get another great Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer finals, but guess what? We are, because Federer showed that thunderous serve and showed that he hasn't slipped that much. And these pairing between Nadal and Federer -they're almost always amazing tennis matches. Federer, obviously the greatest tennis player of all time, but there's an asterisk there. If you're a Nadal fan you will point out that Nadal has beat him twice as much as Federer has beaten Nadal. But then, the Federer defenders will say, yes, but that's because most of those Nadal victories have come on clay, and Nadal could very well be. I think there's no debate - greatest clay player of all time.

SIMON: And to keep up the theme of older men, aging athletes behaving well: Hey, Dirk Nowitzki, NBA Finals. He sank the final basket to cap off a real fourth quarter comeback by the Dallas Mavericks. Miami Heat had been up by 15 points. The question is, can they do it for three more games?

PESCA: I think that they can. I'm not sure that they will but I think that this certainly hurts Miami's confidence, because LeBron James and Dwayne Wade seem to think with about six or seven minutes left in that game, wow, we're going up two-nothing, we're halfway to the NBA championship. Now, analysis of that game is very much like a Rorschach test.

It's really the basketball equivalent of glass half full or half empty. To ask, as many people have, was that a Mavericks comeback or a Heat collapse? It was obviously parts of both. but the fact that the Heat just couldn't score really only three points in the last seven minutes, and the fact that LeBron James decided to do all the scoring for his team, instead of involving his teammate Dwayne Wade, who had 36 points up to that point, that does pose a problem for the future of the Heat.

SIMON: Yeah. We can't leave basketball without noting the retirement of Shaquille O'Neal.

PESCA: Well, I mean he leaves us speechless, even though he's almost never. Shaquille O'Neal was a great basketball player if you look at the stats. Fifth all-time on scoring, and great rebounder. But what a personality?

SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: What a genuinely funny guy. And even though he did quasi-apologize for the horrible movies he starred in over the years...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: ...like Kazaam and Steel, he is the kind of guy that you're going to want to see be in the public eye. During his retirement speech he did thank his dad, an Army sergeant, profusely, and said, Dad, if I had listened to you and learned to shoot free throws better, I might be number one on the all-time scoring list.

But he had fun playing basketball and we had fun watching him. And he gave lie to that old Wilt Chamberlain quote, that "nobody roots for Goliath.

SIMON: Ah. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much for being with us.

PESCA: Youre welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.