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One woman is poised to take it all at the French Open

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to sports news and to Paris, where the French Open kicked off this weekend, and where one person on the women's side of the tournament is already having a blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Iga Swiatek.

KELLY: Iga Swiatek. Everything is coming up roses for the 22-year-old from Poland. She is the No. 1 ranked player on the women's side at this year's open. She is also up against some serious talent, including her good friend Naomi Osaka, who is staging a comeback after having a baby. Well, Courtney Nguyen is a senior writer with the Women's Tennis Association. She's tracking all this. Hey again. Welcome back.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: For people who are not die-hard tennis fans, Iga Swiatek, she will turn 23 as this tournament plays out. What else should we know about her?

NGUYEN: Well, people should know that she is the dominant force in women's tennis right now. And she's already won four Grand Slams. If she wins in Paris, where she is heavily favored to do so, that'll make it five. Only one active player right now has more than five Grand Slams under their belt. That is Venus Williams. So this is the career that she is already building at such a young age. And she's going to be playing a player that I think most casual fans will know, which is Naomi Osaka, in the next round. So it's a blockbuster match, but it's one that, you know, everybody is kind of expecting Iga Swiatek to run away with.

KELLY: I want to throw in one more thing that is in her favor, which is the French Open plays on clay, and she is really good at playing on clay courts. Why?

NGUYEN: The Europeans just, you know, inherently, they grow up on the stuff. They know how to stop, start, slide, and in most importantly, time their strikes with the surface.

KELLY: So let's look ahead to Wednesday, which is the day that she will face her friend and rival, Naomi Osaka, who, as I mentioned, had a baby. She's taken time off to care for herself and that baby and train for coming back to the court. How's she looking?

NGUYEN: I really have been impressed. We're about five months into her comeback. She played for the first time in 15 months in January. That was her first tournament. And I really didn't expect, honestly, for Naomi to be playing at the level that we've really seen her play, particularly on this surface. She does not like playing on clay, and yet she's been able to put up results that she's never been able to put up before on the surface this year.

KELLY: You know, there's been so much talk already this year about how 2024 is shaping up to be a year, maybe the year for women's sports. There's the whole women's basketball Caitlin Clark juggernaut. There's this new women's pro hockey league which is doing great. Are you seeing anything different this year for women's tennis?

NGUYEN: Yeah. I think that within women's tennis, what we're seeing is obviously increased prize money, bigger events, a lot more attention, especially in this kind of post-Serena Williams era. There's always been that question of, who are the next Chris Everts, Serenas? And we are starting to see that now. Obviously, Coco Gauff winning the U.S. Open last fall - massive because she is a global icon. Iga Swiatek, the way that she is just setting the standard and raising the level of the sport to a new height. So it's a very interesting mix of youth exposure and also new names, you know, just kind of convincing new fans to kind of get on board. And that just helps everyone.

KELLY: We've been talking about the women's game, but I can't let you go without asking about tennis great, the champion Rafael Nadal, who just lost. He's out after straight sets in the first round. What are your thoughts?

NGUYEN: It was incredible to see the tennis world basically come out for that match. Novak Djokovic, his great rival, was in the stands. Iga Swiatek, Rafa's No. 1 fan, she was there holding up her phone, recording it all. All of these players coming out to celebrate a man who means so much to both the men's locker room and women's locker room. And it's a big year of retirements in this sport on both the men's and women's sides. And, yeah, not a dry eye in the house as Rafa Nadal may have walked off of the court for the very last time.

KELLY: Courtney Nguyen from the Women's Tennis Association giving us the latest from the French Open. Courtney, thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie D Smith
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.