At the Australian Open, American Men Advance en Masse

MELBOURNE, Australia — There were 94,854 fans at the Australian Open on Saturday, setting a single-day attendance record.

But perhaps even more surprising than the size of the audience was that four American men remained in contention for the men’s singles title: Sebastian Korda, Ben Shelton, J.J. Wolf and Tommy Paul.

None of them have made it this far at the Open until now, and Shelton, the youngest at age 20, had never played in Australia or anywhere outside the United States until a few weeks ago.

The two highest-ranked Americans and most likely candidates to go deeper in Melbourne are missing. Taylor Fritz, the No. 8 seed, and Frances Tiafoe, the No. 16 seed, have already been eliminated. Reilly Opelka, the imposing 7-foot-tall big server who broke into the top 20 last year, is recovering from hip surgery. Mackenzie McDonald, the former U.C.L.A. star who upset Rafael Nadal in the second round, was beaten in his next match.

But Korda, Shelton, Wolf and Paul all advanced to the round of 16, a sign of the renewed strength and depth of American men’s tennis.

“These young guys are coming up, pushing each other,” said Dean Goldfine, one of Shelton’s coaches. “I think that’s one of the things that’s contributing to our success right now as a country. We have these waves. It’s not just one guy here, one guy there. We’ve got a bunch of them, and I think there’s a friendly rivalry there.”

The last time there were four American men in the fourth round of the Australian Open in singles was in 2004 with Andre Agassi, James Blake, Robby Ginepri and Andy Roddick. All were stars or well-established threats.

Tommy Paul will face Roberto Bautista Agut, a Spanish veteran who is seeded 24th.Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Most of this year’s group is just getting started. Paul, 25, is the oldest: an acrobatic all-court player with excellent timing who can take the ball extremely early. He also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year and broke into the top 30 under the tutelage of veteran coach Brad Stine. He switched racket brands in the off-season — often a risky move — but has been sharp in Melbourne and dominated fellow American Jenson Brooksby on Saturday, winning in straight sets.

Paul will face Roberto Bautista Agut, a Spanish veteran who is seeded 24th and is the only seeded player left in the bottom quarter of the draw.

The 2023 Australian Open

The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

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The other players in that section are Shelton and Wolf, former collegiate standouts who will face each other on Monday. Shelton won the N.C.A.A. singles title last year for the University of Florida, where he was coached by his father Bryan Shelton, a former ATP Tour player. Wolf, 24, played for three years at Ohio State, where he was an All-American and the Big Ten player of the year in 2019.

Ben Shelton and Wolf have become friendly since Shelton turned pro last August. “I had seen him play in college tennis, but he was older than me, so we never competed against each other,” Shelton said of Wolf. “We’re good friends, like to joke around a lot, have a lot of locker room banter.”

Both are solidly built and powerful. Wolf has one of the most penetrating forehands in the game. Shelton, a left-hander, has one of the most intimidating serves, frequently surpassing 124 miles per hour. He has won 83 percent of his first-serve points in Melbourne and 64 percent of his second-serve points. Shelton was not broken on Saturday as he prevailed over Alexei Popyrin, the Australian who upset Fritz in the second round and again had a big home crowd ready to support him in John Cain Arena.

“They kind of set the tone when I walked out on the court, and I got booed,” said Shelton, laughing. “Similar to some away matches and college atmospheres that I have been at but definitely amplified today. The sound in there kind of just vibrates.”

But Shelton’s dominant play in his victory, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-4, often meant that the arena was unusually quiet. His shouts of “Come on!” reverberated through the space.

“Honestly, if this is the way he plays day in, day out, the guy is top 10 in six months,” Popyrin said.

Consistency can be elusive at this level, particularly when you take the risks that Shelton does. But he continues to make a big impression as he embarks on his first full season on tour.

“I definitely wouldn’t have thought that I would be here in this moment six months ago or four months ago,” said Shelton, who was ranked outside the top 500 in May.

This is only his second Grand Slam tournament after losing in the first round of last year’s U.S. Open, but he already has guaranteed himself a spot in the top 70 and also equaled his father’s best performance in a Grand Slam event. Bryan Shelton reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier in 1994.

Ben Shelton celebrated after defeating Alexei Popyrin.Credit…James Ross/EPA, via Shutterstock

Bryan Shelton is not in Melbourne because he is in the middle of the collegiate tennis season. Florida had a match on Saturday, but he got up early to watch his son’s match in Australia because of the time difference.

“I think I messed up his sleep schedule a little bit,” Ben Shelton said.

Both Shelton and Wolf come from athletic families. Wolf’s sister Danielle also played tennis at Ohio State, and his mother, Brooke, played for Miami of Ohio. His grandfather Charles Wolf coached the Cincinnati Royals and the Detroit Pistons in the N.B.A.

But the American in the fourth round with the most successful athletic family is the 22-year-old Korda. His parents were leading professional tennis players: his father, Petr, was No. 2 on the ATP Tour and won the Australian Open; his mother, Regina, was ranked in the top 30 on the WTA Tour. Korda’s two older sisters, Nelly and Jessica, are leading women’s professional golfers: Nelly has been ranked No. 1 in the world; Jessica is currently No. 18.

“I’m definitely the worst athlete in the family so far,” Sebastian Korda said on Friday after defeating the former world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in straight sets in the third round for the biggest victory of his career.

But Korda, seeded 29th at the Australian Open, looks poised to move up in his family’s rankings. At 6-foot-5, he has a fluid, deceptively powerful game full of variety and though he has come close to major upsets against the game’s biggest stars, holding match points before losing to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he held firm against the 7th-seeded Medvedev in Rod Laver Arena to win, 7-6 (7), 6-3, 7-6 (4).

Korda’s American peers were closely watching him as they prepared for their own challenges.

“I was in my hotel room, stretching and taking care of myself, but I was glued to the TV,” Wolf said. “He was playing amazing.”

J.J. Wolf in action during the first round of the Australian Open.Credit…Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock
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