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Australian Open: American men's run fueled by confidence, desire to be best

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Ben Shelton, 19, is among three American men in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Australian Open. Photo by Joel Carrett/EPA-EFE
Ben Shelton, 19, is among three American men in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Australian Open. Photo by Joel Carrett/EPA-EFE

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Three American men have reached the Australian Open quarterfinals for the first time in more than 20 years. The players say confidence and the desire to be their country's next tennis star are powering their surge.

No. 29 Sebastian Korda, Tommy Paul and Ben Shelton are the trio aiming for the Grand Slam's top prize. No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The recent trend of Americans crowding the quarterfinals could see that drought end soon.

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"We've seen people we played our whole lives doing big things in big tournaments and say we can do that too," Paul, 25, told reporters Monday. "We push each other, not just results-wise, but we also talk to each other and help each other.

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"It's a good group coming up. I want to be the best one in the group. Everyone wants to be the best. That's what makes it good. We are all competitive."

Paul, Korda and Shelton each will make ar first appearances in a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Paul and Shelton will play each other, assuring at least one semifinal spot and getting the Americans one spot closer to ended the drought, which is largely due to the dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray over the past 20 years.

No American man has won the Australian Open since Andre Agassi (2003).

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Korda, 22, said close matches and disappointing losses to top players, like Djokovic, have helped hone his game into what it is today. The son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and women's tennis player Regina Rajchrtova will face No. 18 Karen Khachanov of Russia for another semifinal spot.

"I've learned from all of the little moments I've gone through," Korda said. "Staying patient and staying positive, and just going through the process has really helped me going forward.

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"Those kinds of losses hurt the most, but my parents and people around me have been really good at telling me to keep going and to stay positive and stay the course."

Shelton, 20, is the least-experienced American still remaining. Like Korda, his father -- Bryan Shelton -- also enjoyed a successful tennis career. Shelton said his lack of experience, support system and confidence have propelled his "surprising" run in Melbourne.

"I got on the plane with no expectations," Shelton said. "I know it is very hard to adjust to Australia from the U.S. ... It being my first time and never being out of the U.S., I knew it would be a struggle.

"It has helped me a little bit, not having that expectation, being able to go out there and myself and playing free has been a big contribution to my success.

"I feel pretty confident in my ability in hopefully the next few matches, I can go out there and last five sets with anybody."

Coach expects American champ

Famed coach Rick Macci, who runs a tennis academy in Boca Raton, Fla., watched Paul, Shelton and Korda throughout their development when he consulted for the United States Tennis Association.

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He told UPI on Monday that he believes Federer's retirement and aging of Djokovic, Nadal and Murray should allow for an American man to claim a Grand Slam in the coming years.

"It's the best group of young Americans that we've had," Macci said. "And let's face it, the door is open. You've got Federer: exit stage left [retired]. With Rafa, it's tough to keep the legs up after all these years. Murray is kinda one foot out the door. And with Djokovic, he is not going to be there forever."

"This thing is so wide open, and it's a big difference mentally for all these guys," Macci said of the American men. "Here's the difference: They don't hope to do good. Now they expect to do good. And that's a whole different athlete. ... It doesn't surprise me, but I think the best is yet to come."

Either Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray was the winner of 65 of the last 75 men's Grand Slam singles titles since Roddick won the most recent American crown in 2003.

American men won 28 of 53 Grand Slam singles titles before their current drought began. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier were responsible for most of the success throughout the 1990s.

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No. 9 Taylor Fritz, No. 17 Frances Tiafoe, No. 39 Jenson Brooksby, No. 40 Reilly Opelka, No. 41 Maxime Cressy, No. 43 John Isner and No. 49 Brandon Nakashima have joined Korda and Paul among American players who have surged into the current Top 50 rankings.

Shelton and J.J. Wolf are likely to leap up those rankings with their runs in Melbourne.

"You look at the numbers from those four guys [Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray] and it's almost not fair," said Macci, who coached Roddick from ages 9 to 13. "Could we have done better? Absolutely.

"But I think, because of that experience of playing against those guys when our guys were 18, 19, 20, now they have that experience and those guys are older.

"It doesn't surprise me that nothing has happened since Roddick, but there is a change and we are definitely going to have Americans win Grand Slams. They just have too much game. ... Plus, the big dogs aren't at the top blocking them."

Korda will face Khachanov on Monday night. The quarterfinal broadcast will start at 9 p.m. on ESPN2 and ESPN+. Paul is expected to face Shelton Tuesday on the same platforms.

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The winner of the Shelton-Paul matchup will meet No. 5 Andrey Rublev of Russia and Djokovic in the semifinals.

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