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Victorious Tommy Paul, surging Ben Shelton yet two more Americans offering major possibilities
The 25-year-old's 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win over the 20-year-old has many enjoying the present and pondering the future.
Published Jan 25, 2023
TenniStory: How Tommy Paul became the player he is
Over the course of a crackling, 3:06 Australian Open quarterfinal, Tommy Paul and Ben Shelton took the world on a magical mystery tennis tour, a trek across the rectangle of the court and the wide open roads of the sport’s history. For each man’s Australian Open delivered joy not simply in the present, but, even more pleasing, offered a glimpse into captivating possibilities.
To play tennis well requires tremendous intellectual and visceral engagement in the here and now. Selective amnesia is the prized asset. As a match unfolds, an effective competitor must treat the past with the awareness and sobriety of an accountant, attuned to various patterns, situations, and how they trigger decisions. Mostly, though, competitors occupy the present, a kinesthetic reality dictated by the sport’s raw physical demands.
But to watch tennis well permits—better yet, encourages—a completely different relationship to time. Though I rarely care to connect tennis and patriotism, the American angle of the Paul-Shelton match was irresistible. This, after all, was the first all-American quarterfinal at a major in 16 years, an occurrence that last happened when Andy Roddick beat his good friend, Mardy Fish, in the quarterfinals of the 2007 Australian Open.
The flavor of Roddick-Fish was poles apart from Paul-Shelton. Though each was still quite young that day in Melbourne—Roddick 24 years old, Fish 25—they’d both by then been through many years of the pro tennis life, Roddick in the Top 10 for a solid half-decade, Fish also a well-seasoned campaigner.
Paul and Shelton have only just begun what each hopes will be considerable glory days. Comparing his development with such peers as Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, the 25-year-old Paul said, “Mine has been, like, the slowest. I like to think of the last four years of my career has just been like steady steps moving up.”
Indeed, not until November 2021, upon winning his first and, to date, only ATP singles title, did Paul crack the Top 50. Currently ranked 35th, Paul is projected to be in the Top 20 next week.
Then there’s the 20-year-old Shelton, that rare and compelling tennis version of a comet. Last spring, Shelton finished his sophomore year at the University of Florida with a run to the NCAA singles title. Once upon a time, the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe used that victory as an instant springboard into the highest levels of competition. But over the last 35 years, the climb has usually been steeper and slower.
Don’t tell that to Shelton. Ranked 547th in late May, Shelton arrived in Melbourne at No. 89 and will now enter the Top 50. He’s also obliterated the assumption that to excel, a young American must travel the globe. This trip to Melbourne marks the first time Shelton has ever left the U.S.—not just for tennis, but for anything.
“It being my first time, never being out of the United States, I knew it would be a struggle,” said Shelton following his round-of-16 win over fellow former American college player, J.J. Wolf. “So I think it maybe has helped me a little bit kind of not having that expectation or the feeling that I have to perform, but being able to just go out there, be myself and play free. I think that's been a big contribution to my success.”
The paths Paul and Shelton have taken has yet again proven how player development is much more art than science. Consider the eight Americans who reached the third round in Melbourne (the first time that had happened in 27 years): Paul opted not to attend college, but this week admitted he wishes he had; Tiafoe, Fritz, Sebastian Korda and Jenson Brooksby dove head-first into pro tennis; Shelton and Wolf found college tennis extremely helpful, as did Mackenzie McDonald.
Now take in the Paul-Shelton match—laden with laser-sharp drives, bold returns, forceful volleys and pinpoint serves—and click another button on the tennis time portal, beyond the Fish-Roddick quarterfinal. As I watched the 56-minute first set head into a tiebreaker, I flashed on a similarly compelling first set: the opener of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the 1995 US Open final. That one too had sparkled, a lively mix of power and precision, Sampras closing it out with an untouchable cross-court backhand that capped off a 22-shot rally.
To be sure, Paul and Shelton have a long way to go before either can match the accomplishments of these American counterparts. But the point here is that Paul and Shelton both play with panache and variety. Paul was a superb 23 of 28 at the net; Shelton excelled there too, winning 25 of 36 treks forward.
Also, grant these two style points for the artistry and effectiveness of their serves. The Paul motion has a trophy-like elegance, marked by a smooth body curl and pinpoint accuracy. Against Shelton, Paul won an impressive 68 percent of his second-serve points, well over the 50 percent mark players strive to surpass. Shelton’s lefty delivery is profoundly dynamic. Flat, kick, slice: he has it all, and hit 24 aces against Paul (but only won 47 percent of his second serves).
“American tennis is, since I was young, that's all we've been hearing, since like 14 years old,” said Paul. “The coaches have been telling us, ‘We need new Americans, we need new Americans.’ It's kind of engraved in my head. We all want to perform.”
At the US Open, Tiafoe became the first American man to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal in more than four years. Now, immediately, another American man is in the final four.
“I think there's a lot of hope for American tennis,” said Shelton. “I'm really looking forward to being a part of it.”
Unquestionably, this is a good time to closely study American tennis players, celebrate recent results and take note of their stylistic diversity. Present-minded as the players must be, surely they too can’t help but be excited about what’s ahead. Let them be fans too.