In their fabled rock opera, the renowned British rockers The Who told us that their man Tommy “sure plays a mean pinball.”
Well, today kid phenom Ben Shelton saw first-hand that Tommy Paul sure plays a mean tennis ball.
But tennis dreamers envisioned that the dazzling Shelton, with his light-up-the-room smile, monster lefty serve and mighty forehand might continue his magical Melbourne run and overpower his older, far more seasoned fellow American.
Never mind that Shelton was playing in only his second Slam and was on Laver Arena for the first time. Not surprisingly, he came out guns blazing. Paul watched as Shelton’s 135 mph corkscrew serves whizzed by, and he blasted winners deep to the corners.
But something was missing. This wasn’t a fierce college battle, or a wild outer court free-for-alls where the manchild, who so loves his adrenaline, could just let ‘er rip. Shelton was now on the most massive arena in the Southern Hemisphere. Worse yet, the 15,000-seat Laver Arena was half empty – the atmosphere was flat.
And so, at least a little, was Ben. At crunch time in the first set, the gunslinger couldn’t call on his raw emotion and power to penetrate the considerable Paul.
The superb, increasingly mature, rock solid craftsman absorbed pace, hit with deep power, and ran Shelton around the court like a yo-yo on a string. He mercilessly exposed Shelton’s backhand and, fought off Ben’s service blasts and called on his athleticism to fend off Shelton’s whiplash forehand. Composed, determined and and well-groomed by master coach Brad Stine, Paul knew this was his time, Tommy narrowly won the first set tiebreak 8-6, and pounce to take full advantage of the fatigue that soon subdued Ben’s explosive game. Paul’s countless jabs had their effect. His rookie foe seemed dazed – Ben wavered.
Paul, seeking to reach his first-ever Grand Slam semi, collected the second set and scored an early break in the third. While Tommy showed us hints of swagger, Shelton, on his first trip out of the United States, at last seemed out of his league.
But this week Ben made it clear that he is one of the game’s great young punchers. And many realize that he’d thrived superbly in that Darwinian jungle known as college tennis. He regained his mojo and twice broke his suddenly stunned foe, capturing the third set 7-5. Match on.
But the steely Paul, who won his only title in Stockholm in 2021 and has wins over Rafa Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz and Andy Murray, broke to start the fourth set and steadily navigated to a 7-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win. Now the first American to reach the Australian semis since Andy Roddick in 2009, he will be in the top 20 for the first time.
“These Americans have been hunting in packs,” noted Australian Open radio. “Taylor Fritz’s win at Indian Wells and Frances Tiafoe’s run to the US Open semis has inspired them.”
And some realists suggested that Shelton’s magical run coming to an end in the quarters may in the long run may be good thing. We saw how the hype machine and the weight of expectations weighed down 19-year-old Emma Raducanu after she won the 2021 US Open.
And young Shelton has plenty of time to refine his game. Christopher Clarey noted, “If and when Ben Shelton improves his return, he may be unplayable.”
Elated as his run continued, Paul saluted his girlfriend (whose birthday is today) and his mother, who left her New Jersey hospital job to fly 10,000 miles to Melbourne to watch him win.
On a special night, when many at last saw that Tommy Paul sure plays a mean pinball, it was as if the reserved 25-year-old was telling the tennis world, “See me, feel me,” as The Who once sang.
Paul should relish his extraordinary moment. Friday he will face tennis’ dominator-in-chief Novak Djokovic, who just demolished the considerable Russian, Andrey Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
GOOD STEFANOS: The personable 24-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas said if he won the Australian Open he would donate his prize money to build a school in Australia.
NOT SO GOOD STEFANOS: When playing Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, the Greek smashed a ball in anger, and it came close to hitting a fan. The other night, he slapped a ball in anger towards the backstop and it almost hit a ballboy.
THE ROBOTS WHO RULE TENNIS: When ESPN noted that Chris Evert had won her first 48 quarterfinals, the legend quipped, “I was a real robot, or something.”…Speaking of robots, Christopher Clarey asked, “Does anyone miss overrules? Sad to see [ump] Carlos Bernardos sitting there in the chair calling the score and watching the time.”
TRADITION TAKES ANOTHER BLOW: One of Wimbledon’s great traditions was that men’s doubles were the best-of-five matches. But starting this year they will be the best-of-three.
MORE FIREPOWER: The ESPN broadcast booth has long been filled with notable coaches like Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert and Chris Evert. Most recently, broadcaster Pam Shriver has been working with Donna Vekic, who reached the quarters.
GO FIGURE: There’s a Polish woman into the semis, but it’s not No. 1 Iga Swiatek. Its No. 45 Magda Linette, who before now had never been past the third round of a major. The 30-year-old beat the No. 16, 19 and 4 seeds…Aryna Sabalenka showed few of the serving yips that torpedoed her last year, and downed Vekic, to reach her fourth Grand Slam semis.
THEY COULD GET WET: Fresno’s celebrated coach Brad Stine, who has been working with great success with Tommy Paul, is famous for his celebratory leaps into Melbourne’s Yarra River after the victories of his pupil Jim Courier. And some of his admirers say there’s a chance he and Paul could get wet if things go their way in the semis and finals.
SWEET KAROLINA: A year ago, Karolina Pliskova was in a cast, so her backers were thrilled that she made it to the quarters this year. But the Czech vet was disappointed, commenting, “I don’t know how to lose.”
FIGHTING VIKA: After noting that she’s followed four or five generations of players, Chris Evert said Vika Azarenka is “one of the best fighters I’ve ever seen.”