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2023 U.S. Open preview

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for Grand Slam tennis. One of the biggest tournaments of the year gets underway in Queens tomorrow - the U.S. Open. On the men's side, all eyes are on Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, the top two players in the world who have been dueling all season long. And on the women's side, the most dominant player on the scene right now, Iga Swiatek, will look to defend her U.S. Open title. We've got Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated on the line to talk about it. Welcome to the show.

JON WERTHEIM: Thanks, Scott. Good to be here.

DETROW: So what are the big plots in tennis this season, and where does the U.S. Open fit in on unsettling them?

WERTHEIM: It's - that's great because this is the fourth major. This is the last one. So in a sense, this will settle a lot of these storylines. On the men's side, as you say, Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz are this new dynamic rivalry, albeit one with two players 16 years apart in age. But one or the other has won each of the last five majors. Alcaraz beat Djokovic in this spellbinding Wimbledon match, and Djokovic got revenge a few weeks - I mean, it's really - this has really become a very textured rivalry. And it's a big staircase down to the next level. So everyone is anticipating a Djokovic-Alcaraz final. And then on the women's side, it's a bit wider open. As you say, Iga Swiatek, No. 1 defending champion. But she hasn't been playing great tennis lately. And meanwhile, Coco Gauff, the 19-year-old American, has very much been a player in ascent. So the women's draw, I think, is more open as it usually is. But a lot of intrigue on both sides.

DETROW: I feel like tennis always reaches peak popularity when you've got those rivalries, those two players that you think about, and nobody else is in the picture. I mean, clearly that's happening on the men's side this season. Is Gauff at that point where it could be her? Is that a little bit more of a jump ball?

WERTHEIM: I think it's a bit more of a jump ball. And I think, you know, she has - she played Iga Swiatek a number of times and had not won. I think she was over eight until she finally beat her in Cincinnati. So maybe that will emerge as a rivalry. I think - I mean, I think that's a really good point. I think rivalries in individual sports are great for the fans. But I think the dirty secret is they also elevate the athletes. I mean, who knows if Novak Djokovic is even playing if this new challenge hasn't arisen to motivate him. So I think there's sort of a qualitative benefit to rivalry, too.

DETROW: Anybody else we should be thinking about as we turn our TV sets toward the U.S. Open tomorrow?

WERTHEIM: Yeah, John Isner, a long-time American stalwart who looks like a basketball player but is a tennis player, is playing what might be his last match. Venus Williams, 43 years old, is still playing. But it really is - I think the big story, at least on the men's side, is this - everybody wants to see the Alcaraz-Djokovic final. It would be a bit of a letdown if that didn't happen.

DETROW: Sorry to everybody else in the tournament, but that's what we want. Like, let's broaden things out a little bit. As a backdrop to all of this, one of the prevailing storylines in all of sports this year has been Saudi Arabia's push to become a global player, spending billions, luring big leagues and names in what critics say is a pretty transparent effort to improve its global image. I understand it's now tennis's turn to deal with this controversy. What's going on?

WERTHEIM: Yeah, the men just announced that they will be having a year-end event for young ascending players in Jeddah. And now the women this week will vote on whether to hold their year-end championships there. What's interesting about the women is they left China because of these ethical concerns two years ago. The irony would not be lost if they left China only to end up in Riyadh. But, as you say, the Saudi investment across all sports has been considerable. There's a lot of money in the balance, and it'll be really interesting to see what the women decide to do.

DETROW: All right. Well, we'll see how that goes. That's Jon Wertheim, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated. Thanks so much.

WERTHEIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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