Paul wants to match American heroes of the past at the Australian Open after beating Shelton

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Ben Shelton was 11 months old when an American last won a grand slam. His conqueror in the quarterfinals, Tommy Paul, was at least of age to understand tennis, although he was only six years old at the time and has no recollection of seeing Andy Roddick win the 2003 US Open.

What he does remember is the countless times it has drilled into him since then. “Since I was young, that’s all we hear,” Paul said Wednesday after becoming the first American semifinalist at the Australian Open since Roddick in 2009. “new Americans, we need new Americans.” It’s kind of etched in my mind. It’s important to me. I think we all really want it for ourselves, but we also want it for American tennis.”

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If Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe put American men’s tennis on the map in the 1970s and 1980s and Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier kept it there in the 1990s, then the past two decades have been relatively barren. Confirmation came in May 2021 when, for the first time in nearly 50 years of automated tennis rankings, the ATP’s top 30 did not include an American male.

Consider the 2023 Australian Open a recovery. At the moment, there are nine American players in the top 50 – including two in the top 30, Taylor Fritz (ranked ninth) and Frances Tiafoe (ranked 17th). There will be 10 next Monday, thanks in part to a collective resurgence at Melbourne Park driven by low profile candidates. Of the 16 Americans in the men’s draw, Fritz and Tiafoe started the tournament most wanted. Both were gone in the third round, but the others had just started.

Shelton defeated JJ Wolf in the fourth round to set up a quarterfinal against another compatriot in Paul, confirming three American men in the last eight on a slam for the first time since the 2005 US Open. This has not happened in Melbourne Park since 2000. Sebastian Korda, the 22-year-old who completed the triumvirate, had already upset Daniil Medvedev and Hubert Hurkacz and was in exciting form until he fell out injured against Karen Khachanov.

The most notable thing about all of this is that none of these players are over the age of 25. Shelton in particular comes out of nowhere. The 20-year-old son of former player Bryan Shelton climbed nearly 500 places in the rankings last year and will leave Melbourne Park substantially higher than his current No. 89. This is his second Grand Slam appearance and his first foray outside the United States.

Ben Shelton was beaten in the quarter-finals by his compatriot Tommy Paul but will shoot up the rankings after an excellent tournament. Photo: Ella Ling/Shutterstock

But his background as a singles title winner for the University of Florida meant he was well prepared for the boisterous Australian crowd, a factor that seems to fit his showmanship. “Love Ben’s energy,” Roddick tweeted after Shelton’s fourth-round victory. “Huge serve, great body, athleticism and hurried kids. Will be 10 American men in the top 50 next week. The tide is turning, and it is moving fast.”

Shelton has high expectations. “I don’t see why we couldn’t have five, six guys in the top 20 at the end of this year with the way some of these guys are playing who aren’t in the top 20 now,” he says. . “Jenson Brooksby, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and so many other guys who haven’t been mentioned as much this week who have had a huge breakthrough over the last few years. I think there is a lot of hope for American tennis. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”

Paul, at age 25, is a late bloomer. He beat Fritz to the 2015 junior French Open title, but struggled to progress to the senior level, with the exception of a run-up to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. On Friday he will have the unenviable task of stopping Novak Djokovic.

“I saw him in the locker room after I finished my game,” says Paul. “He said ‘congratulations’. I think we’ve practiced before, but we’ve never played a game against each other. It is clear that he is quite comfortable here in Australia. It will be a challenging match, but I play my best tennis, so it will be good.”

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