U.S. Open Favorites: Serena Williams, Roger Federer

The U.S. Open gets underway in Flushing Meadows, New York, Monday. For a preview, Steve Inskeep talks to Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Roger Federer is the favorite on the men's side while Serena Williams is the overwhelming favorite for the women.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. Open tennis tournament begins today in Flushing Meadows, New York. And Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim is with us, once again, to preview the tournament.

Hi, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, Frank Deford, our sports commentator, was on the air the other day and basically was saying there's only one person to watch - Serena Williams. Is he right?

WERTHEIM: No. I mean, you know, part of what makes the U.S. Open so special is that you have these back stories and these players that come out of nowhere. And every year there are these - cliché alert - Cinderella stories. On the men's side, certainly, Roger Federer is always a player worth watching. You know, again, to take nothing away from Serena Williams. She's always a, sort of, signature of women's tennis, but there are other players worth watching, with all due respect to the great Frank Deford.

INSKEEP: Let me just focus on Serena for a second, then move to those other players. Is Serena Williams so dominant because she is so good or because the rest of the women's field is just not up to par?

WERTHEIM: We could have lengthy debates about this. I mean, I think Serena Williams is still, for as long as we've known her, this is the most remarkable story in sports. I mean, she won the U.S. Open for the first time 13 years ago. And here she is, she's over 30, 2012, she's coming off a Wimbledon championship, an Olympic gold medal and is the player to beat, really, against the entire field coming to New York. She is a remarkable player.

She's also a remarkable competitor. And I think that's really where the weakness in women's tennis is. I think there have not been these players who have just tried to stare her down. I think she wins so many matches just because she, mentally, is so superior.

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about another guy you mentioned - Roger Federer on the men's side. Of course, he's a dominant player. Of course he won Wimbledon. But then I was watching this match at the Olympics where he was up against Andy Murray. And Murray seemed to dominate him.

WERTHEIM: Yeah. The subtext of that is Federer's previous match went 19-17 in the third set. So I think there was some fatigue there. And, no, I mean, you know, Roger Federer's now 31 years old. He is a father of two, which probably exacts some sort of price on his stamina or at least his sleep. And I think that's the big question: Does he still have what it takes?

The one advantage of these majors is that you have a day off between matches, at least until the end of the tournament. So he has that going for him. But, no, I mean, I think that's the question. Is this going to be Roger Federer who won Wimbledon and looked as good as ever, or is this the 31-year-old man who's sort of on the inevitable downside of his career.

INSKEEP: Remind us of a real basic thing here. How many matches do you have to win in order to win the U.S. Open?

WERTHEIM: You must win seven matches. And in the men's division they are best of five sets, often in grueling heat. So the conditions in New York are pretty unique. But again, you do have - at least until the last weekend - you do have that day off between matches. So that usually helps the players recover.

INSKEEP: OK. Who on the men's or women's side is a dark horse candidate or two? Somebody who's not quite so famous but might have a shot to make some news.

WERTHEIM: Well, in the men's division, you know, we've had three - this is my favorite stat in sports - we've had three players win 29 of the last 30 majors - Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic. So dark horse has been completely redefined.

I mean, Andy Murray, you know, comes here as the third seed and you could consider him a dark horse. Milos Raonic of Canada is a player worth watching. Juan Martin Del Potro is the seven seed who won this event before is worth watching. But, you know, again, we just have this remarkably top-heavy field in the men's game. Nadal won't be playing. But still, Federer or Djokovic are probably your top two picks.

And then, on the women's side, it's the complete inverse, the complete opposite, where it's really a study of parody. I think Serena Williams is your favorite. And after that, absolutely who knows. I mean, we've had seven players win the last seven majors. There are a number of players that are sort of lurking, looking for that breakthrough. But really, on the women's draw it's absolutely wide open.

I'll throw one name out at you - Angelique Kerber, a German who actually beat Serena recently - is a player people may not have heard of who might be worth watching.

INSKEEP: Jon Wertheim of Sport Illustrated, always a pleasure to talk with you.

WERTHEIM: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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