After Sunday’s fourth-round matches at the Australian Open, there will now be three American men advancing to the quarterfinals, the most since 2000.
It’s unlikely many outside of the die-hard tennis fans even recognize their names.
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The highest-ranked among them is Sebastian Korda, a 31st-ranked 22-year-old from Bradenton, Florida who just happens to be 8-1 so far in 2023 with his only loss coming to Novak Djokovic. There’s also 25-year-old Tommy Paul, from New Jersey, who’s ranked 35th in the world, and the youngest of the bunch, 20-year-old Ben Shelton, who came into the Australian Open ranked 89th and had only four career wins.
While he’s the lowest profile of the three players, Ben Shelton may be the one with the brightest future.
The left-handed Shelton possesses a powerful serve that is actually the fastest in the Australian Open so far at 142 mph. He also is a strong defensive player with good cardio and a tireless work ethic.
Before coming to New Zealand and Australia to begin the 2023 tennis season, Shelton had never left the United States. In fact, he was just a college student at the University of Florida until August when he decided to leave school after winning the NCAA singles title in order to go pro.
Things went pretty well at the start. During the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati in August, Shelton won two matches against top-60 opponents, beating Lorenzo Sonego in the first round and then current world number two Casper Ruud in the second round. Shelton was ranked 229th at the time.
Needless to say, expectations were high for his first Grand Slam, the U.S. Open. However, he suffered a first-round loss to 104th-ranked Nuno Borges in five sets. Not quite the coming-out party people expected.
His second Grand Slam opportunity has gone much better.
Shelton earned his first Grand Slam win in the first round by beating China’s Zhang Zhizhen in five sets, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (10-4). He then defeated Chilean qualifier Nicolas Jarry in straight sets in the second round before besting Australian Alexei Popyrin, who was coming off a victory over American Taylor Fritz, in the third.
Early Monday morning, Shelton pulled out another tough victory, edging out fellow up-and-coming American J.J. Wolf 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-2 in order to punch his ticket to the quarterfinals where he will face compatriot Tommy Paul, who eliminated 24th-seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Their match will be the first Grand Slam quarterfinal between two American men since 2007 when Andy Roddick beat Mardy Fish here at the Australian Open.
Paul looked set to break out over the summer at the U.S. Open when he advanced to the third round to take on Casper Ruud. Paul was up two sets to one and a break in the fourth set, but he simpy wasn’t able to close out what would have been the biggest win of his career. Ruud won the fourth set 7-5 and then sealed the deal with a 6-0 domination in the fifth set.
Ruud would advance to the U.S. Open finals and Paul would go 3-4 in his next four tournaments before a strong quarterfinal run at the ATP Masters event in Paris to close out the 2022 season.
Now, he’s one win away from his first-ever semi-final where the winner of Shelton and Paul will take on the winner of Djokovic and 5th-seed Andrey Rublev.
The last in the trio of advancing Americans is Sebastian Korda, who is also in his first-ever quarterfinal.
Korda came into the Australian Open playing tremendous tennis. At the tune-up tournament in Adelaide, Korda beat Andy Murray, Bautista Agut, 15th-ranked Jannik Sinner, and 36th-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka, and pushed Djokovic to two tiebreakers before losing in the final.
After beating 10th-seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in five sets, Korda will take on 18th-seed Karen Khachanov of Russia in the quarterfinals. Khachanov, who made the semi-finals at the U.S. Open also eliminated American Frances Tiafoe in the third round in this year’s Australian Open after Tiafoe blew six set points in a row in the fourth set.
While women’s tennis has been dominated for decades by Americans like Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, the Williams sisters, and many more, it’s been 20 years since an American man has won a major tennis tournament.
While the odds remain long for that streak to be broken in Melbourne, perhaps one of these previously unknown faces is the one who will eventually help his country break through.