DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go back to 1999. A 17-year-old Serena Williams won her first-ever Grand Slam singles title at the U.S. Open. Twenty years later, Williams is still going strong. Yesterday, she faced off against Maria Sharapova at the Open and won. If she goes on to win the U.S. Open, she would tie the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, but she hasn't won a grand slam title since 2017, and the competition ahead is fierce.
Courtney Nguyen is on the line from New York. She's attending the U.S. Open. She's a tennis reporter and co-hosts the "No Challenges Remaining" tennis podcast. Good morning, Courtney.
COURTNEY NGUYEN: Good morning, David.
GREENE: These are two longtime veterans playing yesterday, Sharapova and Williams. What did it feel like? Serious rivals out there.
NGUYEN: You know, everybody gets very, very angry when we call this a rivalry simply because if you've beaten somebody 18 - now 19 consecutive times, there's an argument to be made that maybe...
GREENE: It's not a rivalry (laughter).
NGUYEN: ...It isn't one. But yeah, exactly. Is it? And I think even Maria will say, you know, it's a big question mark. But at the end of the day, these are two of the marquee names of women's tennis over the last 15 years. And they're the biggest draws, you know, in terms - when we talk about ticket sales and all these sorts of things, topping, you know, the Forbes list of the most paid female athletes in the world for the last decade or so.
And so it's a big deal when they do play, but the sport is so much about X's and O's and about forehands and backhand. And at the end of the day, Maria Sharapova's game just does not match up well against Serena Williams'. And last night it was, again, a fairly perfunctory match - 6-1, 6-1, less than an hour...
NGUYEN: ...It took. And Serena looked very good.
GREENE: I mean, she's had a tough year. All is relative, of course, I mean, with the high expectations obviously. But I mean, she retired from the Rogers Cup final with those back spasms. She surrendered two straight sets in her loss in the Wimbledon final. I mean, is this big win over Sharapova a sign that she's got a real shot this year at the Open?
NGUYEN: Well, I think one of the big things that - the draw, when it came out and we saw that these two were going to play each other, you knew that it meant that Serena was going to lock in from the very first match of this tournament, that she wasn't going to take it easy. And sometimes she can start these matches a little bit slow and get going and get cranking midway through or towards the end of the first set. So in that way, I mean, it was great. She looked fantastic.
But the question is precisely what you raised. You know, she's lost three straight major finals that she's contested. That's never happened in her career before. And her success rate, she hasn't even won a set in those three finals. So yes, we know that Serena can win six matches to get into a major final right now. The question is that big seventh one. And seeing her get tested, as this tournament progresses, against more in-tune, informed competition, that's going to be the biggest question.
GREENE: Last year's U.S. Open final, I mean, we remember Naomi Osaka and Serena ended in - with a lot of controversy - I mean, with the chair umpire, lots of questions about gender, about race, sportsmanship, fairness were raised. I mean, is that still looming over this year? Has Serena mentioned it at all?
NGUYEN: Serena hasn't mentioned it at all. And Naomi has fielded, you know, generally, the questions that've been put before her. But I think in a lot of ways, I mean, I think the sport would like to move on from that day, not just because of how uncomfortable that day was - and it's very much one of those, like, where were you when all - you know, when everything started to break loose on Arthur Ashe on that final day? - but I think that because of - you know, ESPN did a recent documentary this past week talking about and rehashing the whole incident, it still is fresh in the minds of so many people.
But I think that just once Serena takes the court and finishes that match and fields any questions, she's kind of moved on. And I think today once Osaka, you know, if she does win today and fields questions one last time, it might be OK for the sport to move ahead.
GREENE: Courtney Nguyen, thanks so much.
NGUYEN: Thank you.
GREENE: She co-hosts the "No Challenges Remaining" tennis podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.