Tennis

Tommy Paul wins the US quarter and will face Novak Djokovic next

Tommy Paul received much less attention than his younger, less experienced opponent, Ben Shelton, heading into their all-American quarter-final at the Australian Open.

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

So the loud shouts heard most often from the Rod Laver Arena stands Wednesday, under the sun that drove the temperature to 87 degrees, were for one of the pair: “Let’s go, Benny! Let’s go!” 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 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 semi-final in his 14th appearance at a major.

“Every junior to pro has a different path. … Mine’s kind of been the slowest,” said the 35th-ranked Paul, mentioning a group of Americans he grew up with: Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka. “I like to think that the last four years of my career have just been like constant steps moving up. I mean, that’s what it’s felt like. I feel like 2023 is hopefully the year that I really make a big leap.”

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

“She’s done a lot for me from when I was really young until now. She’s sacrificed a ton to get me here,” Paul said. “She deserves to be here and deserves to see me win big games.”

Paul’s next opponent will be 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. After dealing with a troubling left hamstring in his first two matches, Djokovic has been on a pretty big roll: winning his last 11 sets and dropping a total of 27 games in that span as he chases a 10th championship in Melbourne.

These wins give Djokovic confidence going into the semi-finals, a round where he has never lost at the Australian Open.

“Last two matches, playing against two guys who are really good players, players in form, to beat them dominantly in three sets is something that is definitely something that I want at this moment, something that sends a message to everyone my opponents that are left. in the draw,” Djokovic said. “With this kind of game, of course, the confidence level goes up.”

After dropping Rublev’s record in major quarterfinals to 0-7 and extending his own winning streak at the Australian Open to 26 matches, tying Andre Agassi for the longest run there in the Open era, Djokovic looked forward to meeting Paul for the first time .

“I know how he plays… He’s been around for a few years. I saw him play quite a bit, especially during this tournament. He’s probably played the tennis of his life,” Djokovic said. “Very explosive, very dynamic player.”

The other men’s semi-final on Friday is Stefanos Tsitsipas against Karen Khachanov. The women’s semifinals Thursday (3:30 a.m. ET) will be Victoria Azarenka vs. Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka vs. Magda Linette.

Paul first broke through as a teenager, taking the junior title in 2015 at the French Open (beating Fritz) and reaching the final at Flushing Meadows the same year (losing to Fritz). 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.

While Shelton was kind of adopted by the locals — “The crowds have been pretty incredible… They kind of treated me like one of their own,” he noted — Paul didn’t attract the same amount of adoration.

“I’ve been on the outdoor courts painting until the round of 16,” Paul said. “I’ve kind of flown under the radar.”

Not anymore.

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.

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

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

“Extremely solid from the baseline,” Shelton said. “He did a great job of moving me around the court and keeping me off balance.”

They shared a light moment when Paul’s coach, Brad Stine, told him to look for a serve down at the “T” on the ad 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.

Shelton broke twice late in the third to steal that set, yelling, “Yeah!” as he raised his left fist and then pointed to his ear with his right index finger as if to say to the crowd, “Let me hear you!”

Perhaps Shelton relaxed a bit there, because he started the next set poorly, double-faulting twice in a row and then missing a backhand to gift-wrap a break to Paul.

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

ESPN’s Matt Walsh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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