MELBOURNE, Australia — Two young tennis players born just six months apart found themselves in different arenas on Monday, but in the same predicament: trying to figure out how to prevail in a fifth set.
Neither Holger Rune nor Ben Shelton were that far at an Australian Open.
Shelton, a 20-year-old American lefty with a friendly demeanor and an unfriendly serve, had never played at the Australian Open until this month: not even as a junior.
But both powerful and hungry youngsters were poised to reach the quarter-finals on either side of the sprawling hall in Melbourne Park leading from the main pitch, Rod Laver Arena, to John Cain Arena.
Rune, a 19-year-old from Denmark who entered the tournament after a breakthrough in the 2022 season ranked No. 10 in the world, faced No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev at the Laver Arena in one of the featured matches of the day .
The unseeded Shelton found himself somewhere closer to Off Broadway at Cain Arena opposite JJ Wolf, another unseeded American looking for a breakthrough.
Laver Arena was packed. Cain Arena was not, with only a few fans sitting on the sunny side on a warm but barely scorching day.
But there were still screams, roars and plenty of momentum shifts in both venues before both games came down to a deciding fifth set, part of the learning curve for a professional men’s tennis player.
Rune and Shelton had only played one five-setter each before arriving in Melbourne. Rune cramped in his five-set defeat to South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo at last year’s Australian Open; Shelton ran out of steam in his five-set defeat to Portugal’s Nuno Borges at last year’s US Open, his only previous major tournament.
“Five sets in the heat, I barely survived,” said Shelton. “My fitness was nowhere near what I needed. So I’ve been working really hard for the past five or six months to get where I want to be.
He hired Daniel Pohl, the German fitness trainer who worked with Naomi Osaka. Shelton was smart on Monday: toning down his natural exuberance early against Wolf to save fuel; dominates the tiebreak in the fourth set; jump to a quick lead in the fifth set; and build on that to win, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Wolf, 24, never broke Shelton’s serve in five sets and only got two break points. Now Shelton will play in another all-American match against Tommy Paul, 25, in the first Grand Slam quarterfinal for both of them. Paul, already an established threat on the tour with wins over Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, advanced with a win, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, over No. 24 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain .
With Sebastian Korda already in the quarterfinals, Australia has three American men in the last eight for the first time since 2000 when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the much lesser known Chris Woodruff reached that podium.
Shelton, who won the 2022 Division I men’s singles championship at the University of Florida and then turned pro in August, has had a fine draw here, with no opponents in the top 50. His return needs a lot of work, but after saving a match point in the first round against China’s Zhang Zhizhen, he continued to seize the opportunity and embraced the matches and post-match interviews with the same enthusiasm.
In only his second major tournament, Shelton has moved one round ahead of his father and coach, Bryan Shelton, whose best Grand Slam run was the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1994. next week in the top 50.
“I try not to think about that at all,” Ben Shelton said of the comparison. “My dad is the reason I’m here. Without him I wouldn’t be here. They say you do better on your second try, and I think the way he coaches me and explains the game and all the life experiences he’s given me, and my mom too, are pretty much the only reason I’m in the position I’m in.”
Shelton has a gentle side, much softer than his running forehand, while Rune prowls the court like a predator in search of the next meal with his long, elastic strides.
Still a teenager, Rune is already an imposing, intimidating physical presence, with muscles rippling in his legs and nervous energy as he adjusts his backward cap, tugs at his shirt and shifts his weight as he prepares for the next rally.
“I have so much passion to play matches, to compete,” he said. “Playing tennis at this event is what I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid, so I’m dropping it all.”
That approach worked in November when he stormed through the field at the Paris Maters indoor event, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final. And it looked like he’d be back at work on Monday, when he served pre-match at 5-3 in the fifth set against Rublev, the flammable Russian Rugged who seems to throw his lean body and a percussive grunt into every shot. with every fiber of his being.
Overall, Rublev dragged off eight consecutive points before Rune held the serve to 6-5 and then earned two match points in the next game.
Rublev saved the first with a wide serve that Rune couldn’t handle and the second with a crosscourt forehand that Rune couldn’t handle.
He made it to the tiebreak, but saw Rune jump to a 5-0 lead. On other occasions, Rublev might have lost the plot by screaming at the injustice of it all, breaking rackets, or pounding himself on the side of the head. But he held it relatively together this time and he had time to recover because all majors use a tiebreaker from the first to the tenth set.
Rublev slowly reeled Rune in with great serve and a daring forehand that landed on the perimeter of a sideline that sent Rune wincing.
Rublev soon led 9-7 with two match points. Although Rune saved the first with a first serve, he had to produce something extraordinary on the second: a running backhand pass winner down the line after Rublev opted not to hit with a swing volley to open field.
It was 9 all, and it was loud, really loud, with Rublev biting the collar of his shirt and Rune pointing at his ears, asking for even more volume from the fans. Instead, he got an unfortunate bounce.
On Rublev’s next match point at 10-9, he hit a backhand return from Rune’s second serve that hit the net cord. Rublev was sure the ball would fall back on his side of the net. Instead, it trickled over and bounced off Rune’s side for a match winner.
“Probably the happiest moment of my life,” said Rublev. Now I can go to the casino. If I’m sure I’m going to win.”
Both men dropped their rackets and Rublev fell to the ground. He rose with tears in his eyes to embrace the youngster whose time, it is expected, will come with all the resources he already has at his disposal.
But potential is one thing, conversion is another, and it may not be easy for Rune to shrug off such a defeat. The Monday image that will stick with observers was Rublev celebrating with both arms up and Rune slumped in a chair behind him, both hands in front of his face.
“Of course it’s not the end of the world, but it hurts,” Rune said. “I have to look on the other side, that there are some things I could have done better, so when I play the next Grand Slam hopefully it won’t happen again.”
Rublev, 0-6 in the quarter-finals of the Grand Slam, may continue to play in this tournament, although perhaps not for long, given that he will next face Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open champion who looked like a man who had returned is on a mission (and a healthy hamstring) on Monday as he defeated Australian Alex de Minaur 6-2, 6-1, 6-2.
“The only chance I have is if I play my best tennis,” said Rublev.
That sounds about right.
Ben Shelton masters a tricky fifth set at the Australian Open. Holger Rune does not. appeared first on New York Times.