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Wimbledon: Men on the U.S. team are having their best start in decades

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

American men are making their mark on Wimbledon. Four of them made it to the fourth round of the tennis tournament this holiday weekend, the most at this Grand Slam since 1999. Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul were defeated, but Brandon Nakashima and Taylor Fritz are still looking to clinch a spot in the quarterfinals this morning.

So is this the start of a new era of American tennis? Let's ask Jon Wertheim. He's a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and he's with us on Skype this morning. Good morning, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Leila. Happy Fourth.

FADEL: Happy Fourth. So tell us more about the American men making strides this year.

WERTHEIM: Well, it's - there's definitely quantity. And now the question is, is there, you know, is there going to be quality to match? Because there were six American seeds, which is a high since the '90s. As you mentioned, there are two players remaining. But it's sort of unclear if these are really champions or if these are just really good players. But it's a big opportunity for Taylor Fritz in particular, who's 25 years old. He's from Southern California. He's really sort of a quality player. And the question is, can he just make that one more leap and win a major because on the American men's side, we are coming up on almost 20 years since an American male won a major tournament.

FADEL: Do they have a shot at the title?

WERTHEIM: I think this year, especially when it seems so wide open, I mean, the favorites are obviously Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, who between them have won 42 majors. They are certainly the two favorites. But it has been such a strange, arhythmic tournament. It's played on grass, which is always sort of a mercurial surface. Yeah, they have a chance, Taylor Fritz in particular. You mentioned Brandon Nakashima, who plays Nick Kyrgios in a couple hours today, which will be a real test for him. But it's been a very strange event. And so yeah, why not? We could use an upset.

FADEL: So it's a different story for American women this year. American women stars Serena Williams, Coco Gauff made early exits at Wimbledon. So what's going on with the women this year?

WERTHEIM: It's funny because I think most people would've thought that the women would have a much better chance, but as it stands now, the best bet is Amanda Anisimova. And, you know, tennis is a funny sport. And on grass, where anything can happen, we've seen a lot of variance and a lot of upsets. There's only one player left in the women's draw who's ever won a major of any kind. So it's been exciting from an upset perspective, not from a predictability perspective.

FADEL: Right. What's driving the success of the American men and American tennis stars this year?

WERTHEIM: It's a good question. I think some of this is just a question of players maturing into their games. There's a nice core group of players who had great junior success, you know, six, seven years ago. And especially the way tennis is played now, also with this logjam at the top where you've had these three towering, you know, these three all-time great players in Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic, it's sort of left little oxygen for everyone else. And now these guys who had great juniors careers five, six years ago, they're in their mid-20s. They're a little bit more developed physically. They've gotten used to sort of the rigors and the workplace. And they're really sort of coming into form in their mid-20s.

FADEL: Could we see a sort of U.S. tennis dynasty over the next few years?

WERTHEIM: Oh, I think there are a lot of people that would love to see that happen. I'm not sure. I mean, tennis has just become so global. I just don't think that's sort of the nature of the sport anymore where one country dominates just because it's become such a global workforce.

FADEL: That's Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Thank you so much for joining us on this holiday weekend.

WERTHEIM: Thank you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.