French Open Wins Turn Older Stars Back Into Heroes

Sometimes, there's nothing more exciting than a great athlete who is growing older, like the rest of us, yet rouses themselves to give one more great performance. Dirk Nowitzki and Roger Federer both upset their opponents this week with stellar wins. Host Scott Simon discusses the French Open, the NBA playoffs and Shaquille O'Neal's retirement announcement with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca.

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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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

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