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With qualifying rounds over, Wimbledon action begins in earnest

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The world's best tennis players are on the grass at Wimbledon. The tournament got off to an awkward start yesterday as fans waited in line for hours to get in. There are extra security measures in place because of concerns about environmental protesters. And this all happened in the rain. Our friend Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated is covering Wimbledon. Hey there, Jon.

JON WERTHEIM: Hi, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm OK. You been able to get in?

WERTHEIM: Barely. It's been an eventful first day, but we suspect things will calm down. First day jitters.

INSKEEP: OK, well, let's focus on the courts. Who are you watching?

WERTHEIM: We're watching Novak Djokovic, who is going for his 24th major, which would set the record for men and tie him all-time with Margaret Court. He's the D-D-defending champion. He's going for his eighth title here. He's - I mean, I liken this to - it's like the Republican field. I mean, you have one heavy favorite and then a lot of Connor Roys polling in single digits. He's - he ought to win.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I like your formulation of adding extra D's to defending champion if you're defending more than one time. Is there anybody in that field of other contenders for the nomination, so to speak, to use your analogy, anybody who you think might challenge him even if they're not favored to do so?

WERTHEIM: Candidate 1a would be Carlos Alcaraz, who is this young phenom from Spain, who's a terrific player, but you're not quite sure if he's ready to take down Djokovic on grass. Andy Murray has won this event twice. He also has a metal hip. He's - it's funny. He's born within a week or so of Djokovic. I mean, they're both 36 years old, but they look like two players almost from two different generations.

INSKEEP: Wow.

WERTHEIM: And, you know, I mean, a lot can happen. It's a fluky surface. There are seven rounds. There - you know, we started this tournament with 127 other candidates. But it would really be a shocking upset if someone other than Djokovic did win the title.

INSKEEP: I'll try not to dwell too long on the idea that you're 36 and you've got a metal hip and you're an old man and everything else.

WERTHEIM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But anyway, that's sports, I suppose. What about on the women's side?

WERTHEIM: The women's side is wider open. It's interesting. Iga Swiatek has really established herself - this young player from Poland - as this dominant force. She's already won four majors, but has never won Wimbledon. So the defending champion is a Kazakh player, Elena Rybakina. And remember, last year, the Russian players and players from Belarus were not able to attend. They were banned from playing because of the conflict. So that's a bit of a wrinkle.

INSKEEP: Wow.

WERTHEIM: The field this year looks very different than it did last year.

INSKEEP: Jon, can you just tell me one other thing? Granting all the problems and the difficulties at the gate and everything else, what does it feel like to be at Wimbledon, to be looking down on that grass?

WERTHEIM: It's really - I mean, I've seen - nobody comes here for the first time and walks away and says, meh, didn't live up to the hype. I mean, it really is an extraordinary event. And I think one thing they do so well is - you know, it's this old-time event. There's this great reverence for history. But there also are these really modern and even populist touches. I mean, I don't know how we feel about this, but there is AI doing some of the highlights. There are new - you know, there are new player decks and a sort of architectural twist. They really thread this needle between keeping this place modern and keeping it fan-friendly and trying to get a younger audience, but also leaning into the history. It really is an extraordinary place.

INSKEEP: Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, it's always a pleasure. Thank you, sir.

WERTHEIM: Likewise. Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIXIGA 70'S "VENTANIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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