At U.S. Open, American men rise, including Tommy Paul and Ben Shelton

NEW YORK — There are bound to be a few gags among the young Americans climbing the ranks together in men’s tennis. They’re all under pressure here at the U.S. Open. They sometimes eat together, practice together and play doubles together to keep up longtime friendships — and not one of them is over 26.

In a sport that’s active 11 months of the year and requires lengthy visits to far-flung places, there’s a lot of downtime away from home to come up with inside jokes. Tommy Paul couldn’t get one off his mind Friday.

The No. 14 seed zipped through his 6-1, 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 win over No. 21 seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain with little problem — except for that pesky third set. The American men have a thing, see, where they swear if someone wins a set 6-0, he’s cursed. Doomed. Bound to lose the next set, no matter what.

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“To be honest, I was thinking about it there in the third,” Paul said with a sheepish grin when asked to explain his dip in play.

He regrouped to elevate what already had been an exciting summer stretch following a third-round loss at Wimbledon. The 26-year-old arrived in New York with buzz thanks to a three-set win over Carlos Alcaraz at the Masters 1000 tournament in Toronto, one of the lead-in events for the U.S. Open. It was the first time an American man had defeated a world No. 1 in a tour-level match since 2017.

On Sunday, Paul will face fellow American Ben Shelton — the youngest of the up-and-coming group at 20 — in both players’ first appearance in the fourth round at the U.S. Open. But it will not be their first meeting at a Grand Slam: Paul beat Shelton in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January to become the first U.S. man to reach a semifinal in Melbourne since Andy Roddick in 2009.

In theory, the fact that this matchup previously happened could curb some of the excitement for the meeting here. That January match was the first time two Americans had met that late in a major since Mardy Fish played Roddick in Melbourne in the same round in 2007. Reaching the second week of a Grand Slam is far more impressive than making the fourth round.

But that match was eight months ago and a world away from New York, where the rise of this group of young Americans coincides with the 20th anniversary of Roddick’s U.S. Open win — he was the last American man to win a Grand Slam, you might have heard.

Frances Tiafoe, now a regular on the big stage, advances at U.S. Open

Tenth-seeded Frances Tiafoe also advanced to the fourth round Friday with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) victory over No. 22 seed Adrian Mannarino of France. And ninth-seeded Taylor Fritz cruised past Jakub Mensik of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-2, 6-0, on Friday night. On the women’s side, No. 3 seed Jessica Pegula and No. 6 seed Coco Gauff add to the U.S. frenzy.

There will be heat come Sunday.

“Obviously around the grounds, everyone is really stoked and excited about the Americans. Every time I pass one of the TVs here, it’s like, ‘Is an American going to win a Slam for the first time [in] 20 years?’ ” Paul said. “… I’m just really excited to play every match. I’m doing things I have never done — never been to the fourth round of the Open, never played on Ashe, never won on Ashe.”

If Paul maintains his level, he will have a good chance to record his second win at Arthur Ashe Stadium, assuming tournament organizers put the all-American matchup on their show court.

New Jersey born and North Carolina raised, Paul plays a quick, smooth game that begins with fast, clinical footwork. His ability to absorb intense pace and slide easily across the baseline balances out a fearsome serve that topped out at 131 mph against Davidovich Fokina. He closed the match with his 15th ace and has the fourth most at this tournament with 39.

Against Shelton, he will have the second-best serve on the court.

His bread and butter is a crushing lefty serve that gets him out of tight spots when his timing is off. Shelton hit a 147-mph serve against Russia’s Aslan Karatsev in a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 win Friday; he served 26 aces to bring his tournament total to 46, second best to John Isner, who retired from tennis Thursday after notching 59 in two matches here.

Beyond his serve, Shelton is a stunning athlete: He won the 2022 NCAA singles title at Florida, where his father and coach, former pro Bryan Shelton, coached at the time. He has retained a college tennis flair in his game, bounding in semicircles after points, playing to the crowd and roaring to pump himself up. At 6-foot-4, he has energy to spare and looks as if he hasn’t finished growing.

For decades, elite players skipped college tennis. That is changing.

Paul will be his first seeded opponent of the tournament. Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open champion who had a solid summer after years in the tennis hinterlands, retired from their second-round match not long after Shelton won the first set.

Paul and Shelton know each other’s games well. Apart from their meeting in Australia, they played doubles together at a tournament in Miami this spring. And both benefit from the collective success of — and friendly competition among — their rising group of Americans headed by Fritz and Tiafoe, both 25.

“In no way would I say [there’s] jealousy between us, but we push each other with results or in practice,” Paul said. “… [Tiafoe] is down in Florida a bunch in preseason, and we get after it. It’s inspiring to see people that we practice with every day, people that we feel like we all know that we can beat each other. And then when one of us does super well in a tournament, it’s inspiring to us to go do it ourselves. We all push each other with results.”

Paul was certainly pleased to learn of Shelton’s result Friday. After all, he won the last set 6-0.

“Nice,” Paul said with a smile. “So I’m coming out hot.”

  • At U.S. Open, rising Americans have talent, potential and inside jokes

    At U.S. Open, rising Americans have talent, potential and inside jokes

  • With one last fifth-set tiebreak, John Isner says goodbye to tennis

    With one last fifth-set tiebreak, John Isner says goodbye to tennis

  • Frances Tiafoe, now a regular on the big stage, advances at U.S. Open

    Frances Tiafoe, now a regular on the big stage, advances at U.S. Open

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