Ben Shelton was 11 months old the last time an American man won a grand slam. His quarter-final conquerer, Tommy Paul, was at least of an age to understand what tennis was, though having just turned six at the time, he does not remember watching Andy Roddick win the 2003 US Open.
What he does recall is the countless times it has been drilled into him since. “Since I was young that’s all we’ve been hearing,” Paul said on Wednesday after becoming the first American semi-finalist at the Australian Open since Roddick in 2009. “Since like 14 years old the coaches have been telling us ‘we need new Americans, we need new Americans’. It’s kind of engraved in my head. It’s important to me. I think we all want it pretty bad for ourselves, but we want it for US tennis too.”
If Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe put US men’s tennis on the map through the 1970s and 80s and Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier kept it there in the 90s, then the past two decades have been relatively barren. Confirmation came in May 2021 when, for the first time in nearly 50 years of computerised tennis rankings, the ATP’s top 30 did not feature an American man.
Consider the 2023 Australian Open a recovery. Right now there are nine American players in the top 50 – including two in the top 30, Taylor Fritz (ranked ninth) and Frances Tiafoe (17th). Come Monday there will be 10, thanks in part to a collective resurgence at Melbourne Park driven by inconspicuous candidates. Of the 16 Americans in the men’s draw, Fritz and Tiafoe started the tournament the most fancied. Both were gone by the third round, but the others were just getting started.
Shelton beat JJ Wolf in the fourth round to set up a quarter-final against another compatriot in Paul, confirming three American men in the final eight at a slam for the first time since the 2005 US Open. At Melbourne Park that has not happened since 2000. Sebastian Korda, the 22-year-old who completed the triumvirate, had already upset Daniil Medvedev and Hubert Hurkacz and was in thrilling form until retiring hurt against Karen Khachanov.
The most notable element of all of this is that none of these players is over 25. Shelton in particular has come from nowhere. The 20-year-old son of the former player Bryan Shelton has climbed almost 500 places in the rankings in the past year and will leave Melbourne Park substantially higher than his current No 89. This is his second grand slam appearance and his first trip outside the United States.
But his background as a college singles title winner for the University of Florida had him well prepared for rowdy Australian crowds, a factor that appears to suit his showmanship. “I love Ben’s energy,” Roddick tweeted after Shelton’s fourth-round win. “Massive serve, big body, athleticism, and kid hustles. Will be 10 US men in top 50 next week. Tide is turning, and it’s turning fast.”
Shelton has high hopes. “I don’t see why at the end of this year we couldn’t have five, six guys in the top 20 with the way that some of these guys are playing that aren’t inside the top 20 right now,” he says. “Jenson Brooksby, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and so many other guys that haven’t been named as much this week that have had huge breakthrough years in the last couple years. I think there’s a lot of hope for American tennis. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”
Paul, at 25, is a late bloomer, having beaten Fritz to the 2015 junior French Open title but struggled to make inroads at the senior level except for a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. On Friday he will have the unenviable task of attempting to stop Novak Djokovic.
“I saw him in the locker room after I finished my match,” Paul says. “He said ‘congrats’. I think we have practised before but we’ve never played a match against each other. Obviously he’s pretty comfortable here in Australia. It’s going to be a challenging match but I’m playing some of my best tennis, so it’s a good time.”