In a Wednesday meeting of first-time Grand Slam quarter-finalists, Tommy Paul used his experience and consistency to ground the electric attack of Ben Shelton at the Australian Open.
A 7-6(6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 winner in Rod Laver Arena, Paul controlled much of the match with his aggressive yet steady baseline game. A late Shelton surge forced a fourth set, but Paul produced an instant response to end his 20-year-old opponent’s tournament debut.
“Making it to the second weekend of a Slam, that’s everyones dream when they start playing tennis,” Paul said after advancing to his first major semi-final. “So I can’t believe I’m here right now.”
After three Americans reached the Melbourne quarter-finals for the first time since 2000, Paul is the first man from the U.S. to reach the semis since Andy Roddick in 2009 and the third active American to advance to the last four of a Grand Slam (John Isner, Frances Tiafoe). The matchup between Paul and Shelton was the first all-American major quarter-final since the 2007 Australian Open.
The World No. 35 Paul was just as attack-minded as his explosive opponent, with both men lethal on serve and early in rallies for much of the three-hour, six-minute match. But Paul was a class above in the longer exchanges, hitting 43 winners to 26 unforced errors in what was a Laver debut for both competitors.
Though Shelton’s lefty serves were whipped in with greater pace than his opponent’s, Paul was more effective at backing up his deliveries on the ground, winning 86 per cent of his first-serve points to Shelton’s 76 per cent — despite the younger American’s 24 aces.
“I’m really happy to get through that match,” Paul added in his on-court interview. “There wasn’t too much rhythm in the match, but Ben’s a very tough player to play against and he’s going to be in many more matches like this, so I think everyone should be really excited for that kid.”
At the close of a high-quality opening set that saw just one break point — saved by Shelton at 1-1 — a single, late mini-break decided the tie-break as Paul locked down from the baseline to win two extended rallies from 6/6.
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The 25-year-old’s pressure on return told in set two, as he converted on his fourth break chance of the match to lead 4-2 — but only after escaping 15/40 when Shelton created his first two break chances of the match. Paul was on the brink of a straight-sets win, up a break at 4-3 in the third, until Shelton summoned a second wind to extend the match, much to the delight of the Laver crowd.
There would be no comeback in set four, as Paul dominated on serve after securing an immediate break, his third of the match. He won all 17 of his first-serve points in the final set and lost just three points on second serve.
Paul has moved up 16 spots to No. 19 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings this week, setting himself up to break into the Top 20 for the first time. He would reach the Top 10 if he can win his maiden Grand Slam title in Melbourne, with Novak Djokovic or Andrey Rublev up next as his semi-final opponent.
“I was doing a couple of interviews and they were asking how it sounds to be in the quarter-finals,” Paul said. “And I was like, ‘Semi-finals sounds a little better.’ I’m pumped to be there and obviously really excited for whoever I play on Friday.”
By advancing to the quarters in his Australian Open debut, Shelton rocketed 46 places up the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings to No. 43. He will be one of 10 Americans in the Top 50 next Monday.
The former Florida Gator was bidding to become the fourth man in the Open Era to reach the semi-finals in his second Grand Slam appearance. The Atlanta native was also seeking to become the youngest Australian Open semi-finalist since 1992.