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Rafael Nadal Wins 10th French Open, 15th Grand Slam Title

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Spain they are hailing it as La Decima. Rafael Nadal won his 10th French Open yesterday. That is a record for any Grand Slam event. He is the undisputed best on clay. To discuss whether he is back in the running for best player ever we turn to Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Hi, John.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. It had been a while since Nadal's last Grand Slam title. And he is 31, which is late career for a tennis player. So how did this happen?

WERTHEIM: It had been three years since his last Grand Slam title. But Nadal's career, much like his spin-laden shots, darts down and then pops right back up. And it's really remarkable. I mean, 31 years old used to be doddering in the dog years of tennis. I mean, you were thinking about the senior tour. And now Roger Federer just won the Australian Open in January, having beaten Nadal. Nadal at 31 won the French Open. Suddenly, we go to Wimbledon. This great rivalry is a decade old. And they've split the first two majors of 2017 in their 30s.

SHAPIRO: Well, do you expect that Nadal will be able to continue this at Wimbledon next month?

WERTHEIM: You know, clay is really his surface. I mean, it's just tailor-made for his game. It's tailor-made for his constitution. I think Roger Federer is probably the favorite. But this has been a great bounceback year for both of them. You know, Federer and Nadal played in the Wimbledon final a decade ago, and they did again in 2008. I mean, this rivalry really keeps going. It's vital. It's vibrant. And it wouldn't surprise me if Nadal and Federer played in the Wimbledon final.

SHAPIRO: OK, so as we said, Nadal is 31, Federer is 35. If these two are facing off in the Wimbledon final, what is going on?

WERTHEIM: They are really, really good tennis players. But I think the sport has gotten so physical that sort of the old calibrations of age are really no longer relevant. And also, all of this coincides with Novak Djokovic's mysterious decline. I just - tennis might not be the most popular sport, but it - unrivaled in terms of plot points. And a year ago, Novak Djokovic was this absolutely sort of dominant force in tennis. He had won four straight majors. He was going to be the best ever. And since then he has not won anything and he's had this mystifying decline. So Federer and Nadal have taken advantage of that. And suddenly, these two guys who - I don't want to say they were written off, but they certainly were B-level stars to Djokovic - have suddenly re-emerged.

SHAPIRO: Given that Nadal has now won 10 French Opens, 15 Grand Slams total, where does it put him in the running for best tennis player of all time?

WERTHEIM: Numerically he's right behind Roger Federer. He moved ahead of Pete Sampras last weekend. He now has 15. Roger Federer has 18. In theory, Nadal is four years younger. He has time to make up that ground. I do think that this heavy concentration of French Open championships, the fact that it's not particularly well-balanced the way Federer is, might cut against him a little bit. But this conversation, the GOAT, the greatest of all time, this fun conversation, this mythical title that tennis fans have really taken to, it now is very much back on the table.

SHAPIRO: There was another first this weekend in Paris. On the women's side, Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko became the first unseeded player to win a French Open title. She is 20. This was her first championship as a pro. Do you think this is a fluke or a name to remember?

WERTHEIM: I would suspect both. But, no, it's funny, Ari. Nadal was favored to win and he won, and the women's draw we were told in advance would be wide open and indeed it was. A player who was unseeded took the title. I mean, I think there's a real possibility that she's a serious player. I think it's partially because she plays this powerful go-for-broke style, but also because she just had this attitude you don't see with this steely resolve. And she was losing in the final and brushed it off. You know, we've seen first-time finalists like this go on to great things. You think back to Maria Sharapova, for instance. We've seen other winners like this never re-enter the winner's circle. So we will see. But it will be fun witnessing.

SHAPIRO: Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Thanks as always.

WERTHEIM: Thanks, Ari, any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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