Tommy Paul was not the crowd favorite or the social media darling on Tuesday night when he took on fellow American Ben Shelton in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, but it didn’t matter. The 25-year-old earned a 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win to reach the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
Shelton had become something of a celebrity in Melbourne after his deep run at the tournament, and it’s not hard to see why. At 20 years old, he was less than a year removed from winning an NCAA singles title for the University of Florida. He was also traveling outside of the United States for the first time and playing in only his second Grand Slam tournament.
During the match, you could hear the crowd shouting, “Let’s go, Benny! Let’s go!” or “Go, Gators!”
Even after the match, Shelton acknowledged how the crowd treated him during his run at the Open: “The crowds have been pretty unbelievable. … They kind of treated me like one of their own.”
Yet, in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal between two American men since 2007, it was the more experienced Paul who came through.
He seemed content to simply dump returns back in when facing Shelton’s big serve and then hope to get the better of their longer rallies. Paul played steady from the baseline, limiting his mistakes and forcing the younger player to come up with big shots.
The strategy worked as Shelton made 50 unforced errors compared to Paul’s 26. Despite Shelton’s big serve, the lefty connected on just 58% of his first serves, which forced him into too many points on his second serve. He won just 47% of the points on that second serve, which opened up a door for Paul to earn the win.
Still, Shelton’s great run at the Australian Open helped him jump from 87th in the world to 43rd.
But now Paul will be the first American male to make it to the semi-finals at the Australian Open since Andy Roddick in 2009. Roddick is also the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles championship when he won the US Open 20 years ago.
Perhaps Tommy Paul can break the streak.
There were many who thought he would years ago when he was a star in the juniors, but it’s taken him a long time to make good on that promise
Paul emerged onto the scene in 2015 as an 18-year-old when he won the junior title at the French Open by beating countryman Taylor Fritz. That same year he made the junior finals at the US Open before losing to Fritz.
Yet, since turning professional, he has won only one tour-level trophy and had only made it as far as the fourth round at just one Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon a year ago. That was, of course, before this week.
“Every junior to pro has a different path. … Mine has been, like, the slowest,” Paul said. “I like to think the last four years of my career has just been like steady steps moving up. I mean, that’s what it’s felt like. I feel like, hopefully, 2023 is the year where I really make a big jump.”
In order to get to his matchup with Shelton, Paul had to defeat two seeded players: 24th-seed Roberto Bautista Agut and 30th-seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. The victories, and Paul’s deep run to the semis, mean that the American is currently up to number 19 in the world.
His reward is a semi-final matchup against 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Novak Djokovic, who demolished 5th-seed Andrey Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in their quarterfinal match. Djokovic seems completely over his troublesome hamstring injury and has won his past 11 sets, dropping just 27 total games in that span.
He will be the ultimate test for the surging Tommy Paul, but perhaps this is the year that an American can break the title streak.