Two days ago, Alexei Popyrin left John Cain Arena in tears, having just beaten the world No 9, Taylor Fritz, and equaled his best result at a grand slam by making the third round. If he cried upon leaving the same venue on Saturday night he did not let anybody see it, for as soon as he lost the first of two match points he could not get out of there quickly enough, offering but a cursory wave before disappearing into the tunnel.
Rightly or wrongly, Popyrin’s upset of the highly fancied American immediately rendered him the favorite against the next, less-fancied American. But Ben Shelton is a rising star in his own right, and the 20-year-old left-hander arrived with an even bigger serve than Popyrin’s and a cool-headedness that did not waver despite the whole arena supporting the other guy.
“I came from college tennis and I really thought it was rowdy there, but this stadium is something special,” Shelton said after dispatching Popyrin 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-4. “I know you guys were going for your hometown boy today and I didn’t have most of the crowd on my side but thanks for everybody supporting me, it’s really fun to be a part of.”
Shelton had come prepared to face Popyrin. He had seen the 23-year-old Australian “bullying people around the court” the past few weeks and resolved that to have a chance of winning he must “bring it to him”. It possibly also helped that Popyrin had already spent eight and a half hours on the court over his two previous five-set wins at Melbourne Park, though his demeanour appeared more tense than tired.
Despite pushing Shelton to a break point in the opening game of the match, his counterpart took the set with little fuss, sending down second serves as fast as 206kph and his first serve topping out at 226kph. Popyrin was still serving and hitting with signature vigour, it was just that Shelton was doing the same but with added variety, epitomized in the second-set tie-breaker when, while up a mini-break at 5-4, he followed his latest earth-shaking serve with a clever, point-winning drop shot.
In the end, the deftness of touch was the difference, meaning Shelton will face JJ Wolf, his countryman and friend, in the fourth round. Australia are left with Alex de Minaur as the only remaining local hope in the men’s draw.
If there is a silver lining to be drawn from the absences and early exits of high-profile names at this Australian Open, it is the emergence of talent that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Popyrin, ranked 113th and in his sixth main-draw campaign courtesy of a wildcard, has deservedly garnered some of the spotlight for a 2023 season that has already yielded more wins than the entirety of his torrid 2022, during which he won five of his 22 Tour level matches.
This fifth appearance in the third round of a major marks something of a resurfacing, notably kicked off by his defeat of the world No 7, Félix Auger-Aliassime, at this month’s Adelaide International warm-up event.
He also spent time in several countries, having moved with his family to Dubai and then to Spain in 2010, and in his early teenage years trained on clay courts in Europe before joining the Mouratoglou Academy in France. He speaks English, Russian and Spanish.
Shelton’s path is almost the polar opposite. The son of the former player Bryan Shelton – who now coaches his son – his past 12 months have been so fruitful he has climbed almost 500 places in the rankings and will leave Melbourne Park with one substantially higher than his current place of No 89. This tournament is not only just his second grand slam appearance, after last year’s first-round US Open loss, but also his very first trip outside his home country.
“I would’ve been happy with anything in the top 100,” he said of his rapid rise. “I wanted to take the process slow and make sure I really develop my game and not chase points, and I’m really pleased with where I am. It’s a pinch-me moment.
“For the first 12 or 13 years of my life I swore I would never play tennis – that was my dad’s thing and I was gonna let him have it. But I’ve fallen in love with the sport, and hopefully I can make a career out of it.”