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Americans Don't Fare Well Early In French Open


It's only the first week of the French Open tennis tournament and already it has been horrendous for the Americans. When the fading Andy Roddick lost in the first round, that was greeted with shrugs. Much more shocking was when Serena Williams also lost in the first round - the first time she's ever gone out that early in a major. Then yesterday her sister Venus was defeated as well in the second round. Sport Illustrated's Jon Wertheim is one American who's still standing at Roland Garros in Paris.

Jon, good morning.

JON WERTHEIM: Good morning. How are you?

GREENE: I'm good. You know, put Serena's loss into some perspective for us. I mean, this seems like a pretty big deal.

WERTHEIM: It was a big deal for a variety of reasons. I mean she's over 30 now, geriatric in tennis terms. But she actually came in playing quite well. She'd really gotten herself into shape. She wasn't visibly injured. And she had this match, really had it won, and then just completely evaporated. I mean, just disappeared.

You know, she's lost before, obviously, but it's rare that you see her choke, which is what this was. I mean, she lost to an opponent who's outside the top 100 - again, a match she really had in hand. And it was just - it was really a very strange experience to see Serena Williams, this great fighter, really just sort of devolve the way she did.

GREENE: And what about her sister, Venus? I mean, she hasn't been playing all that much lately, but still a surprise that she goes out in the second round?

WERTHEIM: Much less so. I mean, Venus is really a shard of herself. Physically she's still dealing with a syndrome. She's now a vegan. She's clearly lost some weight. And I think, you know, realistically, she's the older sister, she's really at the tail end of things. Especially on clay - I think expectations were pretty minimal.

It'll be interesting to see if she can, you know, make some noise on grass, which is her best surface, both at Wimbledon and the Olympics. But I think, you know, sadly, terrific career, but Venus really does seem to be sort of reaching the end of the road here.

GREENE: Let's turn to the men, Jon. Last year there was a lot of talk about Novak Djokovic, and he ended up having, you know, a rare loss in the semis. Is this his time to win the French?

WERTHEIM: It may well be, which would give him four straight majors, which is just a stunning achievement. I think Rafael Nadal of Spain has got to be your favorite. I mean, he's lost one match here since 2005. Defending champion. Terrific clay court player. But after him, Djokovic is certainly next.

And, you know, we used to have this long and textured rivalry between Nadal and Roger Federer. And that still exists to some extent, but now the real rivalry is Nadal and Djokovic. So I think everybody's looking forward to seeing that rivalry resume in the final. I think Nadal has to be your favorite, but I think Novak Djokovic, certainly an excellent chance to win as well.

GREENE: And I guess Americans now have their eyes on Big John Isner, who's number 10, but the top American left in the men's bracket. I mean, can he go far and carry the American flag?

WERTHEIM: Their eyes pointed upward. One of the tallest players in tennis history. He's actually quite an accomplished clay court player. He even beat Roger Federer on clay earlier this year. It's nice to see him having this late career emergence, but really in tennis we've got these top three players. And then there's a fairly long staircase down to the next level. So John Isner is definitely America's great hope remaining, but it's a real big ask to expect him to topple Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.

GREENE: Well, and briefly, Jon, I mean we talk about the last hope remaining for Americans. Is this a bad moment for American tennis or do we just kind of pick up the pieces and move on after this tournament?

WERTHEIM: Yeah, I think both. I mean Americans seldom do their best work on clay, but you know, these are rough times in Europe. And there's a daily drumbeat of bailouts and the troubled eurozone. But Europe - in tennis, anyway - really have cornered the market. I mean Europe is sort of the sports nerve center right now. And there're some bright spots in American tennis. But clearly, you know, we're in a shift. This is not the sport it was 20 years ago, at least in terms of demographics.

GREENE: Jon Wertheim covers tennis for Sports Illustrated. Jon, enjoy your time in Paris. Thanks for joining us.

WERTHEIM: Oh, thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.