Atlanta native Ben Shelton’s surprising run ends at Australian Open

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

Perhaps that 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 was traveling outside of the United States for the first time and participating in his second Grand Slam tournament. Shelton is an Atlanta native and is coached by his father, Bryan Shelton, a former Georgia Tech All-American and Yellow Jackets coach who now directs the Gators’ program. So the loud shouts heard most often emanating from the Rod Laver Arena stands on Wednesday, under the sun that carried the temperature to 87 degrees, 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 trip,” Paul noted.

Paul’s story is a pretty good one, too, and it is the one that will keep going at Melbourne Park: The 25-year-old was a star in the juniors and now is making good on 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.

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

As a bonus, Paul’s mother was in the crowd for the biggest victory of his career. He said his mom booked a flight after he won his fourth-round match, then went straight from work to the airport to make the long journey from the U.S.

“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 matches.”

Credit: Dita Alangkara

Credit: Dita Alangkara

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 worrisome left hamstring in his first two matches, Djokovic has been on quite a roll: He’s won his past 11 sets and dropped a total of 27 games in that span as he chases a 10th championship in Melbourne – “something that sends a message,” he said, “to all my opponents remaining in the draw.”

The other men’s semifinal Friday is Stefanos Tsitsipas against Karen Khachanov.

Now Paul is the first man from the U.S. to make it to the final four at Melbourne Park since Andy Roddick in 2009. Roddick was also the last man from the U.S. to win a Grand Slam singles championship, at the U.S. Open 20 years ago.

And while Shelton was sort of adopted by the locals – “The crowds have been pretty unbelievable. ... They kind of treated me like one of their own,” he observed – Paul was not drawing the same amount of adoration.

“I’ve been on the outside courts, grinding, until the round of 16,” Paul said. “I’ve been flying under the radar a little bit.”

The women’s semifinals Thursday night (3:30 a.m. Thursday ET) will be Victoria Azarenka vs. Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka vs. Magda Linette.

Sabalenka improved to 9-0 in 2023 without dropping a set yet by saving 12 of 14 break points while beating Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2. Linette never got past the third round in 29 other Grand Slam tournaments – and exited in the first round at 17 of those – but is still around after a 6-3, 7-5 win over two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova.