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The Week In Sports

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Are you as happy as I am to hear it's time for sports?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The Red Sox and the Blue Jays battled in Toronto. And Serena Williams is out but still the greatest. Howard Bryant of ESPN The Magazine and espn.com joins us. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. How are you doing?

SIMON: I am fine. Thank you. Serena's won 22 Grand Slam titles. But she was defeated in the semifinals of the U.S. Open by Karolina Pliskova. She is the kind of great who makes news by losing.

BRYANT: By losing.

SIMON: Does Serena Williams have to battle unprecedented expectations as much as anybody on the other side of the net?

BRYANT: Well, I think this is the example of - this is how good you are. I was playing tennis the other day. And I could hear two women on the other court talking. And one said that Serena had lost to Pliskova. And the other woman was like, she did? No. How?

And it's an example of how much they love her, obviously, but also of how high the expectations are. And I think that Serena Williams is in a place right now where she's so dominant. In tennis, they always talk about whether or not the match is on your racquet, meaning - are you the one making mistakes? Or are you actually being beaten by the other side?

And when Serena has lost, so often, it's usually because she didn't play well - that if she had played better, she would've won. It's really almost always on her side of the net. But now she'll be 35 years old on September 26.

And she's been playing - people don't realize it - she'd been playing for 21 years. She turned pro in 1995. And so you start to see just how difficult it is to win. And there's a certain point in time where your body doesn't allow you to be as dominant.

And these other players are younger and hungry, as well. And they're professionals. And so I think, sometimes, it's completely unfair to her. But it's also the unfair expectations of being that great. When you're that good, people expect you to always win.

And I think now we have to sort of recalibrate this journey as we go into the later stages of her career. She's not going to win every single time, even though she looks like she can.

SIMON: Yeah. But she'll still win plenty.

BRYANT: Oh, absolutely. And that's the other thing. We talk about - I was criticized pretty often by saying that I thought she was an older, tired champion. And I didn't mean to say that she was never going to win another match.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: I mean, this year, she went to three finals and won Wimbledon and went to the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the second straight year. But when you watch her play, you can still see the strain of how hard it is to win.

And I think that what we're really asking for is a sort of respect for the journey, respect for how difficult it is to win, respect for the other players on the other side of the net and the the strain of winning seven matches in a row.

And also, you have to remember, when Serena Williams is playing, she's not just playing the other side of the net. She's playing against herself. She's playing against history.

She's playing the Martinas and the Margaret Courts and the Steffi Grafs because every time she steps on the court, she's breaking a record of some sort or chasing another one.

SIMON: Let's move to baseball - Red Sox at the Blue Jays in Toronto this weekend. Every team but Tampa Bay has a chance in that division. What do you watch for this weekend?

BRYANT: Well, what I'm watching for is the Blue Jays actually trying to defend their National League - I'm sorry - their American League East championship. And they went to the ALCS last year. And they got demolished last night by the Red Sox, 13-3.

And the Red Sox are playing better. And how do you like this, Scott? Believe it or not, after getting rid of all of their players and getting rid of the great Alex Rodriguez and everything else and going to a youth movement, the Yankees are only a game out of a playoff spot.

Everybody has a chance to make the playoffs this year. And so I think it's really sort of funny when you're watching the American League that you're going to go into these final 23 games. And you've got four teams who have a chance to make the playoffs. As I always say, there's a fine line between parity and mediocrity.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: I'm not sure anybody's that good. But they're all in the mix.

SIMON: And Tribe ahead in the Central - Rangers in the AL West. In the National League, Cubs aren't in a title race. They're 16 games ahead.

BRYANT: Doesn't that just warm your heart, Scott Simon, that you are able to say that? - that you can just say...

SIMON: Warms my heart? It warms my entire body. Are you kidding?

BRYANT: (Laughter).

SIMON: My body temperature...

BRYANT: The Chicago Cubs are actually not in a pennant race because they're so good, they're running away with it. Goodness, it's an alternate universe.

SIMON: Quick question though...

BRYANT: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Washington Nationals - OK? - are they in any position to go into the playoffs? They're well ahead of the Mets.

BRYANT: Hard to win with both your starters in trouble, injury-wise. If Stephen Strasburg doesn't come back, then I have a hard time thinking that they can challenge the Cubs. But I love Dusty Baker. We'll see what happens.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.