Tennis

Tommy Paul beats Ben Shelton in all-American quarterfinals at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia – Tommy Paul got a lot less attention than his younger, less experienced opponent, Ben Shelton, heading into their all-American quarterfinal at the Australian Open.

Perhaps it was a product of the fascination with the out-of-nowhere Shelton: Just 20, and less than a year after winning an NCAA title for the University of Florida, he traveled outside the United States for the first time and participated in his second Grand Slam tournament.

So the loud cheers heard most often at Rod Laver Arena Wednesday under the sun that drove the temperature to 87 degrees Fahrenheit were for one of the pair: “Let’s go, Benny! Let’s go!” or “Benny, Benny, Benny! Oi, Oi, Oi!” or “Go, Gators!”

“He had a pretty good ride,” Paul remarked.

Paul’s story is pretty good, too, and it’s one that will continue at Melbourne Park: The 25-year-old from New Jersey was a star in the juniors and now lives up to that promise in the pros, using a 7-6 (6) , 6–3, 5–7, 6–4 victory over Shelton to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal in his 14th appearance at a major.

As a bonus, Paul’s mother was in Rod Laver Arena for the biggest win of his career. He said his mother booked a flight after he won his fourth-round fight, and then he went straight from work to the airport to make the long journey from the US to Australia.

“To reach the second weekend of a Slam, that’s everybody’s dream when they start playing tennis,” said the 35th-ranked Paul, “so I can’t believe I’m here right now.”

His path to this point went like this: He broke through as a teenager, took the 2015 junior title at the French Open and also reached the final at Flushing Meadows that year. Since turning pro, he has won a tour-level trophy, in Stockholm in 2021, and until this week had reached the fourth round at just one Grand Slam tournament – at Wimbledon a year ago.

Now Paul is the first man from his country to reach the last four at Melbourne Park since Andy Roddick in 2009. Roddick was also the last man from the United States to win a Grand Slam singles championship at the US Open 20 years ago.

Paul’s next opponent will be 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Novak Djokovic or Andrey Rublev. The other men’s semi-final on Friday is Stefanos Tsitsipas against Karen Khachanov.

Based solely on ranking, Paul offered a much sterner test than any Shelton had faced in Australia: His previous opponents were ranked Nos. 67, 96, 113 and 154.

Paul, meanwhile, took two seeds: No. 24 Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

This matchup was the first singles quarterfinal between two American men at any Grand Slam event since 2007, when Roddick beat Mardy Fish in Melbourne, and Paul was generally content to block the big left serves that kept coming from Shelton, and then do what he could to get the better of the baseline back and forth.

Paul was more steady than spectacular, limiting his miscues with compact swings from both wings.

Leading into the fight, Shelton called Paul a “good friend” and credited him with being “one of those American guys that has kind of taken me under their wing and kind of helped me navigate some of the the early stages of a professional career.”

They shared a light moment when Paul’s coach, Brad Stine, told him to look for a serve down at the “T” on the advertising side of the court. Shelton noticed the exchange and kicked his serve wide, leaving Paul out of position and with no chance to reach the ace Both players smiled.

Even before two sets, Paul broke for a 4-3 lead in the third and then served at 30-law. But he went through a bit of a process. He missed a forehand, was forced into a forehand error, double-faulted and missed a forehand to be broken for the first time in the match.

Shelton broke again to steal that set when Paul sailed a long backhand. Shelton – the far more demonstrative of the two players – yelled, “Yes!” as he raised his left fist, then pointed to his ear with his right index finger as if to tell the crowd, “Let me hear you!’ ‘

Perhaps Shelton relaxed a bit there, because he started the fourth set slowly, double-faulting twice in a row and then missing a gift-wrapping backhand for Paul, who quickly went ahead 2-0.

Soon enough it was Paul who let out a shriek of joy – “Let’s go!” — after the final point, after which he met Shelton at the net for a warm hug.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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