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Aging Giants Of Tennis Reach Australian Open Semifinals

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's old is new again in tennis. We've reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, and some of the sport's aging giants are still in the running. Venus Williams, 36 years old, is playing through an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue. Her sister, Serena, is still alive in this tournament, too. And on the men's side, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are through to the semis. Fans are crossing their fingers for a throwback final.

Jon Wertheim is a senior writer with Sports Illustrated and has been watching the first Open tennis season in person. Hi there.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: In your coverage, you noted that the Williams sisters combined age is 71. Serena's been dominant in recent years. Venus has been struggling. How has she looked so far this tournament?

WERTHEIM: Venus has looked fantastic. The benefit for these major events, these Grand Slams is that you have a day off in between. You referenced the autoimmune disorder, and I think the fact that Venus has a day in between her matches has been a big benefit. It also hasn't been oppressively hot here the way it has in past years. But this - I mean it's just extraordinary. Six of the 8 players remaining as we speak are 30 or over.

SHAPIRO: What do you attribute that to?

WERTHEIM: The game has become so physical that I think durability and strength are absolutely essential. I mean the days of sort of the waifish teenage burnout candidate are laughably obsolete. I think these are pros' pros. These are professionals. They have nutritionists. They have teams.

And I also think these are just extraordinarily good tennis players. I mean Roger Federer could be, you know, 50 years old and still have terrific tennis talent and hand-eye coordination. I mean I think, especially in the case of Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters, these are just extraordinary, extraordinary athletes.

SHAPIRO: So I'm trying to figure out whether we're looking at one of the greatest generations of tennis players of all time or a tennis game where now, for some reason, people in their 30s have the advantage over people in their 20s.

WERTHEIM: Why choose?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WERTHEIM: I think it's a little bit of both. I mean I think that, you know, we're going to be telling our grandkids about the Williams sisters, Federer and Nadal. I also think this is ultimately to tennis's virtue. I mean sports - we all like young and fresh and the new flavors.

But I think it also speaks really well of tennis that these careers now can span - you know, in Serena's case, she won her first major when Bill Clinton was president. We were joking. She's going for her Grand Slam title under her fourth different president. And you know, two of them in the middle had two terms. So I think it's great for tennis that these career shelf lives are so long now.

SHAPIRO: What do you think the chances are that we will see a throwback final between the Williams sisters on the women's side and between Federer and Nadal on the men's side?

WERTHEIM: I think in the case of the Williams sisters, the odds are pretty good. Both of them are playing opponents that are ranked lower than they are. I think we've still got a ways to go on the men's side - especially Federer plays Stan Wawrinka, (unintelligible), fellow Swiss player who's won three major titles of his own. It's a little bit I think hard overhead. I mean I think from a sentimental standpoint, we would all love to see both of those finals.

SHAPIRO: We, the older generation of tennis watchers (laughter).

WERTHEIM: Yeah, I was going to say. We don't root in the press box. We say this not out of partiality but simply rooting for the story. But no, I mean I think that it would be great for this event and great for tennis, but I don't want to diminish the other players remaining.

SHAPIRO: That's Jon Wertheim, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, speaking with us from Melbourne, Australia. Thanks so much.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHANNON AND THE CLAMS SONG, "OH LOUIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.