Tennis-Shelton gets better of Popyrin and ‘rowdy’ crowd to roar into last 16
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MELBOURNE (Reuters) – American Ben Shelton hosted a powerhouse masterclass at the Australian Open on Saturday, in which he defeated local hero Alexei Popyrin 6-3 7-6(4) 6-4 to advance to the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career.
Shelton had never toured outside of the United States before this year, scarcely attracting attention during the warm-up tournaments in Adelaide and Auckland before bursting onto the stage in Melbourne.
The 20-year-old was virtually unstoppable on serve as he slammed the door on every opportunity Popyrin had while the American fired 34 winners in front of a partisan crowd hoping for another Australian advance.
“I know coming from collegiate tennis and found it really rough, but this stadium is special,” said a grinning Shelton.
“I know you guys chose your hometown boy today and I didn’t have most of the viewers on my side,” he added, though fans roared their approval.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were in action simultaneously at Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena, but John Cain Arena still had a healthy turnout after a helping hand from Alex de Minaur, who urged locals to get behind “Popeye ” to deliver. .
“We Aussies, we stick together,” De Minaur said in a post-game interview after home fans watched him defeat Benjamin Bonzi at Rod Laver Arena.
A motley crowd chimed in, even attempting a Mexican wave at one point, but they were quickly overwhelmed when Shelton broke midway through the opening set as the American’s celebratory scream echoed through the arena.
Fans found their voices again in the second set as Popyrin made it to a tiebreak, but Shelton persisted, silencing them again with his firepower and finesse and ending the set with another roar.
They could only watch in dismay as Popyrin soon lost his reach and his number of unforced errors soared, giving Shelton the advantage before finding the net on match point to give the young American the win in exactly two hours.
Ranked 570 a year ago, Shelton is now in the top 100 and could even make it into the top 50 with a deep run at the tournament – a phenomenal achievement for someone who only started playing tennis as a teenager.
“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 wanted to leave it to him,” he said, referring to his father Bryan, who reached a career-high rank of 55 in the 1990s.
“But yeah, I kind of fell in love with the sport and here we are. Hopefully I can make a career out of it.”
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)