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Wimbledon Watches Serena Williams And New Stars


We're switching gears now, we're turning to tennis. Wimbledon starts today in London. It's the sport's oldest grand slam tournament. All eyes are on Serena Williams, a five-time Wimbledon champ. But she had a disappointing performance at the French Open weeks ago, leaving many to wonder if she's got what it takes to win again. And then there are the up-and-comers who are creating buzz and bringing yet more diversity to tennis. We wanted to hear more about this year's Wimbledon on and off the court so we've called Courtney Nguyen. She runs the "Beyond The Baseline" tennis blog for Sports Illustrated. And she's with us now from London. Courtney, thanks so much for speaking with us. Welcome.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Thank you very much, lovely to be speaking with you.

MARTIN: So the big buzz is still around Serena Williams? What are people saying?

NGUYEN: Well, I mean, there are a lot of questions about Serena as she comes into this tournament. And as you said, you know, she's coming off a really bad loss at the French Open. It was her worst grand slam loss of her entire career - a long storied career. So I think that's where we kind of were like, hmm, that's not good. And she's been a bit tense in the way that she's kind of been dealing with the press and has come into this tournament as pretty much the overwhelming favorite simply because she's so good on this surface. So...

MARTIN: So why didn't she open the women's tournament on center? I understand it that that honor usually goes to the previous year's winner, but that is Marion Bartoli, but she's retired, so a lot of people thought it would go to Serena Williams. Do you think she was snubbed?

NGUYEN: I do think that she was snubbed. The All England Club has basically three criteria that they look at in a situation like this. Either they go with the top seed, which is Serena Williams. They go with the, you know, other defending champion, which would be Serena Williams, who won it in 2012. Or they go with the finalist of last year's final, which is a German, Sabine Lisicki. And they decided to go with Lisicki. Lisicki really had a very charming tournament last year, the British public loved her. She beat Serena. And to Serena's credit, she didn't make a big deal out of it. But I just really think, you know, the typical tradition is that a champion opens the tournament, and Sabine Lisicki's not a champion.

MARTIN: So why do you think that they went with her?

NGUYEN: Well, I think that - A, I mean, the Brits do love her and she's really charmed them over the course of her performances here at Wimbledon, which is by far Lisicki's best tournament of any tournament. And, you know, I mean, I think that in Britain, there's this is kind of a love-hate relationship with Serena Williams, with Venus Williams. This isn't the first time that we've seen them kind of get a questionable court assignment, where sometimes they're kind of stuck out playing on number three court or number two court, depending on things. And so it's never - they've never really embraced Serena as a champion here.

MARTIN: Well, what's up with that? She's just not their cup of tea?

NGUYEN: She's just not their cup of tea. You know, I mean, I think that, you know, is there a racial component to it? I wouldn't go as far as to say that. But she's just not the elegant, you know, Barbie doll champion that they want. And this tournament has never shied away from that. And they've admitted in the past, saying, yes, we actually do kind of use aesthetics and a woman's looks in terms of how we schedule our court placements and who plays where. And, you know...

MARTIN: And aesthetics meaning what? According to well...

NGUYEN: Well, you know...

MARTIN: ...That's a complicated topic, isn't it?

NGUYEN: Exactly, yes. It is a very complicated topic. And it's a topic that comes up quite a bit when we talk about, you know, Serena Williams. There's another young American player, Taylor Townsend, who got into a bit of a - there was a whole thing with her a couple of years ago with the USTA and about how she looked. And they thought that she was overweight and not fit enough. But she was actually posting great results and so you have this kind of disconnect there. But with Serena, you know, I mean, this tournament - they like their Maria Sharapovas, they like their Anna Kournikovas, and, you know, the choice of Lisicki wasn't entirely surprising.

MARTIN: So speaking about Taylor Townsend, is she one to watch?

NGUYEN: She definitely is one to watch. She is one of those players that gets us in the writers room, a very cynical tennis writing room, very excited about the future of the game. She's, you know, very young, just, you know 18 years old and former junior number one, has won junior slams, left-handed player. And what is exciting about her is not just her game, but just her mentality. She's just got a great personality. She's had to go through a lot of adversity of people really publicly criticizing her weight and her fitness. And she's really - I mean, for a teenager to have to deal with that in the public eye, for her to come out of it so strong and so positive, is really incredible.

MARTIN: And she's also African-American.

NGUYEN: She is African-American, yeah. She's from Chicago, splits her time in Washington, D.C. as well.

MARTIN: Sensing a theme here about...


MARTIN: ...You know, it's interesting that Wimbledon is competing with World Cup. I mean, a lot of the world's eyes are on World Cup this week and we're seeing, you know, an array of people from across the world, you know, competing and enjoying that. You know, it's been declared an anti-racism tournament - that the president of Brazil has made a big point of saying that we do not want - we want to show the world that we can put on an international tournament where people are appreciated, you know...

NGUYEN: Right.

MARTIN: ...No matter sort of who they are. And I just wonder if a similar message is going out at Wimbledon, or perhaps not.

NGUYEN: Yeah, I mean, this has always been the slowest tournament to adopt progressive measures. For example, equal prize money is another thing. This was the last tournament to do it. And it took a very forceful letter from Venus Williams, who really championed it, to get the club to finally accept - OK, yeah, we should pay the guys - or the girls the same as we pay the guys. And it was just a completely arbitrary decision that they had made in terms of the unequal pay scale from before. So it's kind of just what Wimbledon is. I mean, as much as people talk about, oh, tradition and all these things as a positive, there are also negatives to it. And, you know, in terms of - I mean, tennis for us, our World Cup is every, you know, few months. I mean, our four slams are incredibly international. And the game has grown all over the globe, so that it isn't one that's dominated just by America, Australia, France and the UK.

MARTIN: But before we let you go, Courtney, any other players that you're excited to see? And we've been kind of focusing on the women, so maybe somebody on the men's side, speaking of diversity, anybody on the men's side that we should keep an eye on as well?

NGUYEN: Well, of course. Well, on the men's side, you know, there's a kind of a whole slew of young players moving up. But I think that the three ones everyone's been keeping an eye on is we finally have a Canadian man whose actually quite good, Milosz Raonic. There's another Japanese player, Kei Nishikori, so getting kind of the Asian market involved. And then there's Gregor Dimitrov, whose Bulgarian, Maria Sharapova's boyfriend. He gets a lot of headlines for that, but he's playing incredible tennis and, you know, has a shot for a very deep run here at Wimbledon.

MARTIN: Courtney Nguyen blogs at "Beyond The Baseline" for Sports Illustrated, and she was kind enough to take a little time out from Wimbledon, where she's covering the tournament, to speak with us. Courtney, thanks so much. Enjoy the matches.

NGUYEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.