MELBOURNE, Australia — The next stop on Ben Shelton’s first trip outside the United States will be a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals.
The 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida extended his stay in his debut at Melbourne Park by pulling out a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory over J.J. Wolf in an all-American matchup in John Cain Arena on Monday.
Shelton is playing in only his second Grand Slam tournament — and using his passport for the first time — and he credited himself with being “energetic” and “courageous” across the more than 3 1/2 hours he and Wolf traded big cuts and momentum shifts on a day where the temperature rose above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
They join Sebastian Korda — his dad won the 1998 Australian Open — to give the U.S. three men in the quarterfinals in Melbourne for the first time since 2000. Back then, the trio was Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Chris Woodruff.
Shelton, Paul and Korda are all in the final eight at a major for the first time. Not the case, of course, for Novak Djokovic, the 21-time Grand Slam champion who looked indomitable during a 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 win over No. 22 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia and declared that his bothersome left hamstring is no longer an issue.
“I didn’t feel anything today,” Djokovic said, noting that he has been taking “a lot of” anti-inflammatory pills.
Djokovic, who couldn’t play in last year’s Australian Open because he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19, moved a step closer to a record-extending 10th championship in Melbourne by never facing a break point and by claiming a half-dozen of de Minaur’s service games.
Djokovic moves on to a matchup against No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev. The Russian kept coming back, kept coming back, kept coming back — from down 5-2 in the fifth set, from facing a pair of match points while trailing 6-5, from deficits of 5-0 and 7-2 in the first-to-10 concluding tiebreaker — before finally putting away No. 9 Holger Rune 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (11-9) at Rod Laver Arena.
Rublev won it when his backhand return slipped off the net cord and barely, just barely, made it over onto Rune’s side of the court, impossible to reach. Rublev dropped to his back at the baseline and raised both arms as if to say, “Sorry!” — or perhaps “Sorry. Not sorry!” — while Rune also flung away his racket.
“I have no words, man. I’m shaking,” said Rublev, who is 0-6 in Grand Slam quarterfinals for his career. “That ball was exactly on my side and I don’t know how (it) went over.”
The left-handed Shelton comes equipped with a powerful serve that produced the fastest offering of the tournament so far, at 142 mph (228 kph) during his first-round victory, an instinct for defense and a competitive streak. Against Wolf, who played college tennis at Ohio State and also was playing in the main draw in Melbourne for the first time, Shelton only faced two break points and saved them both.
At times a bit quiet in the early going under the sun, Shelton grew more and more loud and animated as the shadows crept across the blue playing surface and the scoreline increased the intensity.
He would throw uppercuts and yell, “Come on!” or “Let’s go!” after winning points, and when the close contest came to a close, Shelton jutted out his tongue and flexed his arms.
“Definitely a grueling match,” said Shelton, whose father, Bryan, reached a career-best ranking of No. 55 as a pro and now coaches the Florida men’s team.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.