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Roger Federer And Rafael Nadal Set To Reignite Their Rivalry At French Open Semifinal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Friday, two of tennis' all-time greats will reignite their rivalry at the French Open semifinal; 37-year-old Roger Federer will take on 33-year-old Rafael Nadal for the 39th in their careers - keep all those 30s straight. Nadal is the current French Open champion. He has won a record 11 titles there. Federer, meanwhile, edges him out in Grand Slam titles overall, which means, whether you are team Nadal or team Federer, Friday's match is not one you are going to want to miss. To help us prep, we have called Jon Wertheim from Sports Illustrated. He is in Paris. Hello again, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Nice to talk again.

KELLY: Nice to speak to you. OK, so Friday - it's big. How big? How excited should we be here?

WERTHEIM: We should be teeming with excitement.

KELLY: (Laughter).

WERTHEIM: This is Nadal-Federer 39. A lot of us who cover this sport weren't sure we would get this match, much less at a major event. And you mentioned team Nadal and team Federer, but really, this is a rare rivalry where it's completely reasonable to root for both of them. So this is sort of a triumph for tennis, as well as another installment in this great rivalry.

KELLY: Oh, really? So you're making the argument - the fact that this match is happening at all is cause for jubilation?

WERTHEIM: Roger Federer is going to be 38 years old in a few months. Nadal just turned 33 the other day. And I think 10 years ago, if you had said, look - in 2019, these guys are still going to be meeting in the latter rounds of majors, people would have, you know, chased you around with butterfly nets. So it's really that the longevity is part of what's extraordinary, the fact that here they are, still at the top of their sport. And this rivalry still continues to undulate to sway. I mean, Nadal leads the head-to-heads 23 to 15, but he hasn't beaten Federer in more than half a decade. Federer has actually won the last four or five matchups they've played.

KELLY: Federer's won the last four or five matches they've played, but has Federer ever won against Nadal in Paris, at the French Open?

WERTHEIM: He has not, and that's sort of - that's Nadal's great ace in the hole. This is his personal sandbox. Nadal has won 17 majors, and 11 of them have come here. He is - so Federer has never made inroads against Nadal at the French Open, and this is sort of seen as Nadal's great stand here against Federer. I mean, again...

KELLY: I mean - and explain why that is. What is it about Nadal's style of play that makes him so good on clay, which is what they play in Paris?

WERTHEIM: His game is just absolutely tailored to the surface - the fact that he's left-handed; it's the surface he grew up playing on. I think a lot of it is sort of spiritual. It's almost psychological as well. Nadal is this workmanlike player, and clay really rewards effort in a way that no other surface does. It's really perfect for Nadal's sort of offense, defense. It also has the effect of sort of blunting some of Federer's grace and artistry.

KELLY: Huh. It sounds as though you are maybe aligning yourself with the way the betting money is going, that you think Nadal is going to be just hard to beat here?

WERTHEIM: I think Nadal is going to be hard to beat. I mean, the great subtext of this match, too, is that Novak Djokovic, who's the No. 1 player and has won three majors in a row, isn't even really being spoken about. And this story has kind of overwhelmed the narrative here. You wonder if, while all the attention is on Federer and Nadal and their 39th encounter, if Novak Djokovic sneaks by and plays one of them on tired legs and takes the title; that wouldn't surprise me at all.

KELLY: Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Thanks for joining us from Paris.

WERTHEIM: Anytime. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS' "ORIGINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.