By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Twenty years ago, Andy Roddick ignited major spark—and snark—in the young Tommy Paul.
In a tense Australian quarterfinal clash of American buddies, Paul defeated 20-year-old Ben Shelton to reach his first major semifinal in his 14th Grand Slam appearance.
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Often overlooked, Paul is comfortable as the underdog facing former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic as both hunt history. Djokovic is chasing his 22nd Grand Slam title to equal rival Rafael Nadal’s men’s major mark, while Paul plays to become the first American man since Andre Agassi in 2003 to advance to the AO final.
Fittingly, Paul is the first American man to reach the final four at Melbourne Park since Andy Roddick in 2009.
That’s because the young Tommy Paul was inspired by Roddick’s run to the 2003 US Open championship that saw him take down David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero in succession to follow Pete Sampras as the second straight American man to rule Flushing Meadows.
Riding the high of Roddick’s US Open win, the young Paul wrote Roddick off as a major contender when the American No. 1, who won the Open wearing Reebok, including a shirt that evoked wide-spread comparisons to the New York City subway may, switched to Lacoste.
When Roddick went full crocodile clothing, he jumped the shark as a major contender in the eyes of a seven-year-old Paul.
“We had the posters of him when he won in his Reebok fit. I was actually salty when he switched to Lacoste,” New Balance endorser Paul recalled. “I was like, He’s not going to win another slam now. I thought it was the outfits…
“It was definitely something that I remember, Roddick winning the US Open.”
Former world No. 1 Roddick remains the last American man to raise a Grand Slam singles trophy.
Now, Paul is making major strides of his own in Melbourne Park—and continuing a recent American anthem.
The 35th-ranked Paul’s major breakthrough comes fourth months after buddy Frances Tiafoe toppled Rafael Nadal en route to his maiden major semifinal at the US Open.
Echoes of Roddick’s US Open run have echoed in the ears of young American pros since their junior days.
Tuning into the most dynamic tennis of his career, Paul says rising young U.S. stars are aiming to put American tennis back on the major map 20 years after Roddick’s triumph.
“It’s important to me. American tennis is, since I was young, that’s all we’ve been hearing, since like 14 years old,” Paul said. “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. Obviously Frances was pretty damn close at US Open to getting past the semis. Who knows what would have happened in the finals. Yeah, I mean, I think we all want it pretty bad for ourselves, but we want it for U.S. tennis, too.”
The American anthem have made a mark in Melbourne Park. The explosive Shelton advanced to his maiden major quarterfinal in his first trip outside of the United States in an electrifying run that will carry him to a career-high ranking of No. 43.
U.S. men upset the Top 2 AO seeds with Mackenzie McDonald stunning defending champion Nadal and Jenson Brooksby befuddling second-seeded Casper Ruud.
Former Ohio State all American JJ Wolf delivered a career-best fourth-round run before bowing to Shelton.
Sebastian Korda, who held a championship point against Djokovic in the Adelaide International 1 final earlier this month, reinforced his reputation as a true Grand Slam title contender dismissing former US Open champion Daniil Medvedev before fighting off Hubert Hurkacz in a dramatic fifth-set tiebreaker in round four. Korda injured his wrist and retired down two sets to Karen Khachanov in the quarterfinals.
For the first time since 2004, four American men—Paul, Shelton, Korda and Wolf—reached the round of 16 in Melbourne.
The stars and stripes are flying high in the ATP live rankings. Currently 10 of the world’s Top 50-ranked men in the ATP Live Rankings are American: No. 8 Taylor Fritz, No. 15 Frances Tiafoe, No. 19 Tommy Paul, No. 26 Sebastian Korda, No. 38 Jenson Brooksby, No. 41 John Isner, No. 43 Ben Shelton, No. 47 JJ Wolf, No. 48 Reilly Opelka and No. 49 Brandon Nakashima, who lost to McDonald in the opening round.
Playing his first major semifinal, Paul faces arguably the biggest Grand Slam challenge outside of confronting Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros: defeating Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena where he has not lost since the 2018 fourth round.
Nine-time AO champion Djokovic is riding a 26-match AO winning streak and has won 26 in a row against American opponents.
Still, Paul, views his first meeting with 21-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic as major opportunity and good fun.
“Obviously he’s pretty comfortable here in Australia. It’s going to be a challenging match,” Paul said. “But I’m playing some of my best tennis, so it’s a good time.”
Accustomed to being overlooked on the outer courts, Paul is excited to step on this major stage.
“I’ve been on the outside courts grinding until the round of 16. I think I’ve been flying under the radar a little bit,” Paul said. “I mean, it’s hard to not fly under the radar when you’re out in the park, you know.”
Photo credit: Getty
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