Veteran Tennis Stars Still Prove Le Creme De La Creme In Paris

It's day two of the French Open. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim about what to expect from tennis' aging greats and up-and-comers.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How much longer will the aging greats of tennis remain the best in the game? Or, put another way, when might we see a new generation of tennis greats take over from the likes of Serena Williams and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal? Well, if the past couple of days on the clay courts of Paris are any indication, they are not yielding the mantle just yet.

It is Day 2 of the French Open. Here to talk predictions and catch us up on the latest in the world of tennis is Jon Wertheim. He's in Paris for Sports Illustrated. Jon Wertheim, welcome.

JON WERTHEIM: Thank you. Good to be here.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. Start with today's big match, Serena Williams, who was looking a little rocky at the start. And then what happened?

WERTHEIM: She lost the first set. And then, as if it were no more difficult than this, flicking a switch, she then lost only one more game the rest of the afternoon. And you said it. The pillars are not yielding lightly. She is 37 years old. She is a mother. And she is into Round 2 and really has as good a chance of anyone in the women's field of winning this.

KELLY: Who else are you watching in the women's field?

WERTHEIM: It's a great question. I mean, the men's have these two players that are head and shoulders above the field. They're sort of, you know - I said the other day they were - they were first class, and everyone else was business or coach.

KELLY: (Laughter).

WERTHEIM: The women's is a lot of business class.

KELLY: OK.

WERTHEIM: The defending champ in Simona Halep, but she has not won a title this year. Already two top players have been eliminated. Naomi Osaka is the No. 1 seed. She's going for her third straight major. But she's never won a tournament of any size on clay. So you go down the list, and I sort of like the one that's won 23 majors, even if she is 37 years old. I wouldn't be surprised if Serena stole this.

KELLY: All right, and back over on the men's side, you were talking about the first class of Nadal and Federer. I mean, is it - does it make any sense to anyone anywhere to bet against Nadal on clay?

WERTHEIM: That's a great question. He's only won this event 11 times prior.

KELLY: Yeah, only 11.

WERTHEIM: It's - it's absurd. I mean, he's going for his 12th title. That's more than any player has won any major. The No. 1 player right now is Novak Djokovic. But really, I don't know how you bet against Nadal. And as wide open as the women's field is, it would really be, I'd say, a considerable upset if Nadal and Djokovic don't play in the final a week from Sunday. I mean, they're really - given Nadal's clay record and given that Djokovic has won three straight majors, they're really the overwhelming favorites.

KELLY: So what do you make of this whole changing of the guards question, with all these greats, the first-class players here, all well into their 30s?

WERTHEIM: I was going to say, the guards do not change in this sport. I love it. I mean, I think the why is really interesting. Is it financial incentives? Is it technology? Is it that these players now have the means to travel with trainers and therapists? But it's terrific. I mean, these careers are extending longer than ever. Roger Federer first played this event in 1999. I mean, Serena won her first major in 1999.

KELLY: Is that right - 1999? - 20 years ago. Wow.

WERTHEIM: She got a congratulations from Bill Clinton.

KELLY: Yeah.

WERTHEIM: And I think it allows fans to have these longer bonds. Sponsors love it. I think everybody wins here. But it's remarkable. And you asked initially - and I think it's a really good question - where is the next generation? And the truth is, this generation we're quite familiar with has no intention of retreating.

KELLY: You're calling it terrific. Is it also, for somebody in your line of work, just the tiniest bit boring (laughter)...

WERTHEIM: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...That you could - you could almost pre-write the lead?

WERTHEIM: I will take sustained excellence, as I'm sure my colleagues that cover golf will say about Tiger Woods. Give me sustained excellence over unpredictability. No, I mean, I think it's a good question. And it would be nice if occasionally, especially on the men's side, we saw a little fresh blood. But I think what we're seeing are - with Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Serena - these are four of the great, great titans of tennis.

I mean, these - in Federer and Serena right now - are probably the two best players ever. And the fact that all four of them are coexisting, and you have - especially on the men's side, you have these individual rivalries...

KELLY: Right.

WERTHEIM: ...And these matches. But really, three guys playing for history is sort of a subtext of all these tournaments. Give me four titans over any given Sunday parity any day of the week.

KELLY: Jon Wertheim, good luck with your hardship assignment there in Paris.

WERTHEIM: (Laughter) That I'll take.

KELLY: Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, talking to us about the French Open, which is on until June 9.

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