Ben Shelton part of growing crop of U.S. men

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia– To get an idea of just how new the whole international pro tennis thing is to Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida about to make his Australian Open debut, consider this: He says he is using a passport for the first time.

There’s more that is unfamiliar to him. The Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide itinerary of airplane rides late last month that brought Shelton on his initial trip outside of the United States as he played tune-up events before the first Grand Slam tournament of 2023. Going through customs. Trying different food. Riding in cars on the left side of the road.

And that’s to say nothing of the on-court learning curve, which Shelton will continue to navigate when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park against Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old from China also never previously in the main draw there.

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “These are all a lot of experiences that I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be out here.”

It’s been said over and over and over again: No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. Shelton is part of a group of players hoping to end that drought at some point, and while it still might take some time, breakthrough performances in 2022 by Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima helped show countrymen what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, the first man from the U.S. to get that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, climbed into the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, a 21-year-old from California, won the Next Gen ATP Finals.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s cool to see those guys do amazing things. It’s something to look up to for me, for sure,” said Shelton, prone to flashing a wide smile while he speaks. “American tennis is definitely on the way up.”

A total of 13 Americans are in the ATP’s top 100, with Shelton checking in at a career-best No. 92 after turning pro last year.

“He’s a feisty competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and friend of Shelton’s. “When things aren’t going well, he is still so confident and focused on deciding to just make it go well. It’s very rare. You’re going to hear some yelling. You’re going to hear `Vamos!’ You’re going to see fist pumps. Doesn’t matter what the score is.”

Shelton’s father, Bryan, a former pro who taught Ben the game and coaches at Florida, described it as “a football mentality” that derives from time dabbling in that sport, along with basketball and soccer, as a youngster. It wasn’t until Ben turned 11 that he zeroed in on tennis – because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels like his sister, Emma, who now competes for Florida.

There are a tournament-high 14 U.S. players in the men’s bracket at the Australian Open, and the 17 in the women’s bracket also leads all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin won major trophies in women’s singles for the United States over the past two decades.)

“The American men in their 20s, there’s a lot of guys that are having success and steadily climbing up the rankings. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; I want Taylor to do the best, of course. But hopefully we’ll have an American man as a Grand Slam champion again soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his sophomore season and is taking online classes toward a degree in business, is OK with taking things one step at a time.

He is more interested in process-related goals than anything tied to rankings or results – even if he did soar 471 during 2022, which included a victory over French Open and U.S. Open runner-up Casper Ruud and three consecutive titles on the lower-level Challenger Tour.

“He’s had a lot of success, but there’s so much room for improvement,” Bryan Shelton said about his son. “He recognizes that.”

There weren’t as many surprises on the court for Ben as there were off it during his initial taste of life on tour.

“The way players take care of all the things – their body, how they eat, the way they warm up, the work they do in the gym each day,” Shelton said, “I’d say that was the interesting part for me. Seeing how much it takes to be at the level that these guys are at.”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.