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Surprise Contenders In The Running For U.S. Open Title


If you're following the U.S. Open right now, maybe you're struggling with the same thing I do each time I watch a tennis tournament - do I want the old familiar faces at the end, maybe in marquee rematches, or do I want to see fresh faces? This U.S. Open - little bit of both. Courtney Nguyen has been following the matches. She's a contributing tennis writer for Sports Illustrated, and she joins us from New York. Courtney, good morning.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Good morning.

GREENE: So we've got the lady's semi-final match-ups set, and there are a few surprise contenders here from Russia and from China - tell me about them.

NGUYEN: Yes, Peng Shuai, who is from China - normally when we speak about Chinese tennis, we're used to talking about Li Na, who was ranked seed number two. And she actually withdrew from the tournament. And there were Chinese journalists who thought, well, Li Na's not going to be at the U.S. Open, so we're actually not going to send anyone to cover the U.S. Open. And here we have Peng Shuai, 28 years old, highest career rank was barely inside of top 15. She is into the semi-finals really playing some spectacular tennis, hasn't dropped a set. And she's had just such a great story, had heart surgery when she was 12 years old and back in 2006 was one of the big trailblazers who went to the Chinese Tennis Federation and said, you know, I want a bit of a more Western focus in the way that I handle my tennis career. And they give her that freedom, and she's been able to kind of be able to pursue tennis within the WT tour and travel and hire Western coaches and all these sorts of things.

GREENE: She's sort of a veteran at 28 years old.

NGUYEN: Yes, she is. Thirty-seven times she's played Grand Slams and never made a Grand Slam semi-final, and yet here she is set to play Caroline Wozniacki. So it's a really great story for Peng Shuai and another great kind of victory for Chinese tennis which has been, you know, a burgeoning market definitely for tennis.

GREENE: And a Russian also in the semifinals, who is that?

NGUYEN: Yes, Ekaterina Makarova, who's also another veteran, who's had a propensity to pull off big upsets at slams every once in a while - kind of a journeyman player, very quiet, shy, very nice woman - who again having just kind of a run that we really didn't see coming - had a very strong summer, but to beat two-time defending finalist Victoria Azarenka yesterday - again hasn't dropped a set. And she's going to get her chance against Serena Williams, who she beat at the Australian Open a few years ago. So, you know, two great veterans making a run through - for those of within tennis it's a pretty neat thing to see.

GREENE: Let's turn to the men's side. I mean, we're talking about veterans. We actually had our colleague at NPR Shankar Vedantam, who covers social science, talking about how in men's tennis, you're seeing people who are in tennis years older than you might think. You would think they would be, you know, getting there where they're not able to sustain on the court. Roger Federer, 33 years old, he's in the quarterfinals, what are his chances here?

NGUYEN: They're very good, and they were good before the tournament even began. Roger Federer, yeah, just turned 33 and still, you know, a force within the tour. And he's the number two seed, which obviously helped him. I think the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal, who's always kind of been his stopper, almost at any tournament, just as a dominant record against Roger, definitely helped him and maybe give him that little additional edge, you know, mentally to think this might be a tournament that I could win and I can beat everybody who's in this draw. He's played great tennis, yeah, into the quarterfinals and present. A tough match tonight against Gael Monfils, but everybody, even before the tournament, was really picking him to make the final. And then from there we'll see how it goes.

GREENE: Talking about ages like 28 and 33 being old really gives me a lot of pain, I have to say, but I guess that's the truth. Courtney, thanks so much.

NGUYEN: No problem. Thank you very much.

GREENE: Courtney Nguyen is co-host of the "No Challenges Remaining" tennis podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.