American men having best Australian Open since 2004

By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s been almost two full decades since this many U.S. men reached Week 2 at the Australian Open.

And while that group in 2004 included a couple of Grand Slam champions in Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, everything is all so new for the quartet there this time: Tommy Paul, who is 25; J.J. Wolf, 24; Sebastian Korda, 22; and Ben Shelton, 20, are all about to make their fourth-round debuts at Melbourne Park.

It must feel very much like a chance for a career-defining result for them and other young men still in the bracket.

“I haven’t thought about it too much, honestly, because I just have that one-match-at-a-time mentality, but I think it’s hard for anyone to look past that. There’s been a lot of upsets,” the 67th-ranked Wolf, who played college tennis at Ohio State, said after eliminating lucky loser Michael Mmoh, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, in an all-American matchup on Saturday (Friday night PT). “But upsets happen for a reason. A lot of people out here are good. It is a real opportunity.”

Wolf next plays yet another American, 89th-ranked Shelton, who won the NCAA title for the University of Florida as a sophomore last year, then turned pro. Using his passport to travel outside of the United States for the first time in his life, Shelton extended his stay in his Australian Open debut by defeating 113th-ranked Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

Paul, who is ranked 35th, topped Californian Jenson Brooksby by a score of 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. Next for Paul will be 14th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, who ended the exhausting run of Andy Murray by beating the three-time major champion, 6-1, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-4.

That result, the last of the third round, left Novak Djokovic as the only player among the 16 remaining men who has won a Grand Slam title. Not only that, but the other 15 have participated in a combined total of one major final – No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas lost to Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final.

This is seen by most as a period of transition in men’s tennis, a chance for new faces to make themselves known.

That No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, a 25-year-old from Russia, and No. 9 seed Holger Rune, a 19-year-old from Denmark, would still be in the bracket, and are set up to face each other for a quarterfinal berth on Monday, should come as a surprise to no one.

Still, neither has been past the final eight at any Grand Slam tournament. Nor has No. 22 Alex de Minaur, a 23-year-old from Australia, who advanced Saturday and now gets the unenviable task of meeting 21-time Slam champion Djokovic. Nine of those titles came at Melbourne Park, and Djokovic has now won 24 consecutive matches there after topping No. 27 Grigor Dimitrov, 7-6 (7), 6-3, 6-4, at night despite some more signs of trouble from his left hamstring.

Looking ahead to facing de Minaur in front of what is sure to be a crowd filled with other Australians, Djokovic told the Rod Laver Arena spectators: “I don’t know how many of you will be on my side. I don’t think too many.”

After early losses by high seeds such as No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the defending champion and owner of 22 major trophies (beaten by American Mackenzie McDonald); No. 2 Casper Ruud, twice a major finalist last year (beaten by Brooksby); and No. 7 Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champ and the runner-up at Melbourne Park each of the last two years (beaten by Korda), have at the very least made some newcomers feel welcome in the latter stages.

Even if they do not want to talk about the disruptions in the bracket.

“Of course, I know what’s happening,” said Rune, who appeared to hurt his ankle and wrist in a fall during a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (5) win against Ugo Humbert and pronounced himself OK afterward. “But mainly I just focus on myself.”

Rublev sounded a similar note following his 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory over No. 25 Dan Evans.

“There were some moments before when I feel there is opportunity to go to semis or even final maybe and, in the end, nothing happened,” said Rublev, who delivered 60 winners. “So this time, I just don’t want to even try to think about opportunity or something.”

An intriguing fourth-round matchup on the women s side was established with No. 5 Aryna Sabalenka to take on No. 12 Belinda Bencic. Sabalenka is now 7-0 in 2023 after beating Elise Mertens, 6-2, 6-3, and Bencic stretched her winning streak to eight matches by defeating Camila Giorgi, 6-2, 7-5.

Also moving into Week 2: No. 4 seed Caroline Garcia, two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova, Zhang Shuai, Donna Vekic and 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova.

“It feels pretty surreal,” said Fruhvirtova, who is appearing in just her second major tournament and got past 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, in a match between a pair of players from the Czech Republic. “Yeah, it’s an incredible feeling. I’m just so happy and excited, you know, to be able to say, ‘Hi, second week!’”

NETFLIX CURSE?

Tennis is abuzz with tongue-in-cheek talk about a “Netflix curse” during the Australian Open, drawing a line from the streaming service’s new docuseries about the sport to the recent rough times for Season 1 protagonists.

Of the 10 players featured prominently across the five episodes released last week, right before the start of play at Melbourne Park, only one remained in the singles competition heading into Saturday: Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada.

The sixth-seeded Auger-Aliassime, a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2021, said he wasn’t aware this was even a topic of conversation until Friday, when his girlfriend clued him in.

“I thought it was funny,” he said after beating 28th-seeded Francisco Cerundolo, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, to reach the fourth round. “I don’t know; I don’t think it’s connected. … Maybe the players that lost, maybe they do feel like it’s connected, somehow. I don’t think they do. I don’t think it’s connected, anyhow.”

Well, of course it isn’t.

There is no such thing as a “curse” in the world of sports, although folks sure do love to concoct and discuss them. The Curse of the Bambino, for one. The Sports Illustrated cover jinx was another.

It is worth noting that no one is drawing any sort of similar silly connection between active participation in the filming of Netflix’s popular “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” – made by the same executive producers as “Break Point” – and F1’s on-track results.

Consider: Lewis Hamilton has taken part in interviews and managed to win the driver’s championship in each of the first three years of that series. Max Verstappen, meanwhile, did not sit for the Netflix cameras and collected the past two titles.

Still, just for fun, let’s run down the roster of what’s been released from “Break Point”:

• Episode 1: Nick Kyrgios (withdrew before the tournament because he needs surgery on his left knee); Thanasi Kokkinakis (lost to 35-year-old Andy Murray in the second round in a five-setter that lasted 5 hours, 45 minutes and ended at 4:05 a.m. on Friday)

• Episode 2: Matteo Berrettini (lost to Murray in the first round in a five-setter that lasted 4 hours, 49 minutes); Ajla Tomljanovic (withdrew before the tournament because of an injured knee)

• Episode 3: Maria Sakkari (lost to 87th-ranked Zhu Lin in the second round Friday in a three-setter); Taylor Fritz (lost to 113th-ranked Australian wild-card entry Alexei Popyrin in the second round in a five-setter)

• Episode 4: Ons Jabeur (lost to Marketa Vondrousova in the second round in a three-setter); Paula Badosa (withdrew before the tournament with an injured thigh)

• Episode 5: Auger-Aliassime (plays Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round Sunday); Casper Ruud (lost to Jenson Brooksby in the second round)

Yes, one of these is not like the others.

“Funny how things work out sometimes,” Auger-Aliassime said.

PLAYER SHARES FRUIT WITH FOE

Talk about going bananas: There was an unusual show of sportsmanship at the Australian Open on Saturday, when one player, Dan Evans, offered a piece of fruit to his opponent, Andrey Rublev.

And the fifth-seeded Rublev joked after his 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory put him in the fourth round at Melbourne Park: “He helped me with the energy.”

Rublev, a six-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, compiled a whopping 60 winners in the match, with nary a slip-up.

But let’s peel back what happened in the most interesting sequence at Margaret Court Arena.

The snack-sharing came at a changeover late in the first set, with Rublev leading 5-4. The 25-year-old Russian wanted a little sustenance – tennis players often will munch on bananas during breaks in matches because they are a healthy, fat-free source of carbohydrates and potassium – but he realized the courtside allotment was gone.

Evans, a 32-year-old from Britain who was seeded 25th, had just been handed a pair of bananas by a ball kid.

So Evans flung one of the yellow fruits from where he was sitting on the sideline with his left hand, and it traveled past the chair umpire’s stand and over toward the other bench, where Rublev grabbed it out of the air with his left hand. Both men are righties.

The seemingly effortless throw and one-handed catch were both impressive.

“I quite like him, so I shared with him,” Evans said. “That was about it.”

Asked whether he would have provided the bit of food to someone he doesn’t like, Evans, in perhaps typical British fashion, replied simply, “No.”

Rublev, who will face Holger Rune of Denmark on Monday for a spot in the quarterfinals, laughed about the whole thing when asked about it at his news conference.

He said he’s handed bottles of water out of a sideline refrigerator to foes in the past, but he couldn’t recall ever participating in an exchange of fruit.

“Just a nice and fun moment between us,” Rublev said. “We have a great relationship between each other.”

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