Best Australian since '04 for US men; Djokovic lone GS champ

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J.J. Wolf of the U.S. celebrates after defeating compatriot Michael Mmoh in their third round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

MELBOURNE – 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.

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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. “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.

“It kind of always starts well in last few matches, including this one, and then some movement happens and then it gets worse,” said Djokovic, who got his leg massaged by a trainer during some changeovers Saturday. “Yeah, pills kick in. Some hot cream and stuff. That works for a little bit, then it doesn’t, then works again. It’s really a roller coaster, honestly.”

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.

Other women's Week 2 matchups: No. 4 seed Caroline Garcia vs. unseeded Magda Linette — who had been 0-6 in the third round at majors until beating No. 19 Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3, 6-4 on Saturday night — two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 23 Zhang Shuai, and Donna Vekic vs. 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!’”

___ AP freelancer Simon Cambers contributed to this report.


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