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American Women Dominate U.S. Open Tennis Semifinals


American women have accomplished something extraordinary in tennis. For the first time in 36 years, all of the semifinalists in the U.S. Open are from the U.S. Joining us to talk about this is former pro tennis player and ESPN commentator Pamela Shriver. Welcome.

PAMELA SHRIVER: Hey, thanks so much, Ari, for having me. It is. It's an exciting time for women's tennis and tennis in general.

SHAPIRO: Well, how would you describe this moment? And how far have we come since you were in the finals of the U.S. Open in 1978?

SHRIVER: Well, it's interesting because from the late '70s through 1985, this exact thing happened five different times at the majors. I was actually - I had forgotten I was involved in two of them, both at the Australian Open. That's meaning all four semifinalists being from the United States. But 1985's a long time ago. Obviously, Venus and Serena Williams have dominated the headlines in the women's game. But to have now CoCo Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys joining 37-year-old Venus Williams all in the semifinals is going to put a cap to a fairy tale year in professional tennis.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot to unpack there. As you say, Venus is 37 years old. Her sister, Serena, just had a baby. The two of them have dominated tennis for so long. What does this moment mean for the legacy of the Williams sisters?

SHRIVER: Well, it will mean a lot if Venus can win two more matches. This would be an extraordinary accomplishment 16 years after winning her second U.S. Open if she were to be able to win it again. I think it would surpass any of the other record-breaking things that happened this year, where it's Rafa Nadal's 10th French Open or Roger Federer's 18th and 19th major, mainly because of Venus' journey with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that's sapped her energies. She withdrew from the U.S. Open six years ago.

Honestly, we saw her play some tennis in the last six years that didn't even look like top 50. But she learned how to manage it. She never gave up. And she's been on her way back the last few years. And at 37 years of age, she'd be the oldest winner on the women's side of a major. It would just set so many different records that it would be outrageous.

SHAPIRO: And the other three semifinalists apart from Venus Williams are all much younger than her. Do you think we're seeing a generational shift where perhaps people who were inspired by the Williams sisters are now coming into their own?

SHRIVER: For sure these three younger semifinalists have all been inspired by what Serena and Venus have done. And yet they all have their strong individual personalities and dynamic games. Sloane Stephens is probably the most surprising only because six weeks ago she had just finished recovering from 11 months off. She had major foot problems. And all of the sudden, a month ago, she caught on fire. And her ranking has gone from - I don't have the exact numbers, but it's, like, from number 800 in the world to, like, the top 50 in the world in a month.

And then Madison Keys, two wrist surgeries, but she's developed this great belief this summer. And her power game literally, when I sit courtside for ESPN, it takes my breath away. And then CoCo Vandeweghe is a terrific athlete and one of the best serves in women's tennis. So anywhere you look, all four of them have amazing stories. But I think Venus is a sentimental favorite.

SHAPIRO: And while U.S. women's tennis is in this incredible moment, it must be said that U.S. men's tennis is considerably less impressive right now. What's going on?

SHRIVER: Well, it has been quite the drought since Andy Roddick won here 14 years ago. The good news is there's a promising group of, like, 18 to 20-year-olds. I love the fact that Sam Querrey backed up the semifinal performance with a quarterfinal performance at the U.S. Open. And these careers now, Ari, are lasting longer and longer. I mean, just look at what Serena, Venus and Roger Federer are doing in their mid-thirties. And so Sam Querrey's in his late 20s and playing the best tennis he's ever played. So let's not give up on Isner, Querrey, Jack Sock. They may all be able to win a major before it's all said and done.

SHAPIRO: Pamela Shriver is a former pro tennis player and commentator for ESPN. Thanks for joining us.

SHRIVER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.