Tommy Paul wins Australian Open all-American quarterfinal; Novak Djokovic next

Tommy Paul
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Tommy Paul received a lot less attention than his younger, less-experienced, opponent, Ben Shelton, heading into their all-American quarterfinal at the Australian Open.

Perhaps that was a product of the fascination with the out-of-nowhere Shelton: Just 20, and less than a year after winning an NCAA title for the University of Florida, he was traveling outside of the United States for the first time and participating in his second Grand Slam tournament.

So the loud shouts heard most often emanating from the Rod Laver Arena stands on Wednesday, under the sun that carried the temperature to 87 degrees, were for one of the pair: “Let’s go, Benny! Let’s go!” or “Benny, Benny, Benny! Oi, Oi, Oi!” or “Go, Gators!”

“He had a pretty good trip,” Paul noted.

Paul’s story is a pretty good one, too, and it is the one that will keep going at Melbourne Park: The 25-year-old was a star in the juniors and now is making good on that promise in the pros, using a 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Shelton to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal in his 14th appearance at a major.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men

“Every junior to pro has a different path. … Mine has been, like, the slowest,” the 35th-ranked Paul said, mentioning a group of Americans he grew up with: Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka. “I like to think the last four years of my career has just been like steady steps moving up. I mean, that’s what it’s felt like. I feel like hopefully 2023 is the year where I really make a big jump.”

As a bonus, Paul’s mother was in the crowd for the biggest victory of his career. He said Mom booked a flight after he won his fourth-round match, then went straight from work to the airport to make the long journey from the U.S.

“She’s done a lot for me, from when I was really young until now. She’s sacrificed a ton to get me here,” Paul said. “She deserves to be here and deserves to see me win big matches.”

Paul’s next opponent will be 21-time Grand Slam singles champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. After dealing with a worrisome left hamstring in his first two matches, Djokovic has been on quite a roll: He’s won his past 11 sets and dropped a total of 27 games in that span as he chases a 10th championship in Melbourne.

Rublev dropped to 0-7 in major quarterfinals.

The other men’s semifinal Friday is Stefanos Tsitsipas against Karen Khachanov.

Paul initially broke through as a teenager, taking the 2015 junior title at the French Open (beating Fritz) and getting to the final at Flushing Meadows that year, too (losing to Fritz). Since turning professional, he has claimed one tour-level trophy, at Stockholm in 2021, and, until this week, had made it as far as the fourth round at just one Grand Slam tournament — at Wimbledon a year ago.

Now Paul is the first man from his country to make it to the final four at Melbourne Park since Andy Roddick in 2009. Roddick was also the last man from the U.S. to win a Grand Slam singles championship, at the U.S. Open 20 years ago.

And while Shelton was sort of adopted by the locals — “The crowds have been pretty unbelievable. … They kind of treated me like one of their own,” he observed — Paul was not drawing the same amount adoration.

“I’ve been on the outside courts, grinding, until the round of 16,” Paul said. “I’ve been flying under the radar a little bit.”

No longer.

The women’s semifinals Thursday night (3:30 a.m. Thursday EST) will be Victoria Azarenka vs. Elena Rybakina, and Aryna Sabalenka vs. Magda Linette.

Sabalenka improved to 9-0 in 2023 without dropping a set yet by saving 12 of 14 break points while beating Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-2. Linette never got past the third round in 29 other Grand Slam tournaments — and exited in the first round at 17 of those — but is still around after a 6-3, 7-5 win over two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Based purely on ranking, Paul offered a much sterner test than anyone Shelton had faced in Australia: His prior opponents were ranked 67th, 96th, 113th and 154th.

Paul, meanwhile, took out two seeds: No. 24 Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

This matchup was the first Grand Slam quarterfinal between two American men since 2007, when Roddick beat Mardy Fish in Melbourne, and Paul generally was content to block back those big lefty serves that kept coming from Shelton, then do what he could to get the better of back-and-forths.

Paul was more steady than spectacular, limiting his miscues with compact swings off both wings.

“Extremely solid from the baseline,” Shelton said. “He did a great job moving me around the court, keeping me off balance.”

They shared a light moment when Paul’s coach, Brad Stine, told him to look for a serve down the “T” on the Ad side of the court. Shelton noticed the exchange and kicked his serve wide, leaving Paul out of position and with no chance at reaching the ace. Both players smiled.

Shelton broke twice late in the third to steal that set and yelled, “Yeah!” as he raised his left fist, then pointed to his ear with his right index finger, as if telling the crowd, “Let me hear you!”

Maybe Shelton relaxed a bit there, because he started the next set poorly, double-faulting twice in a row and then missing a backhand to gift-wrap a break for Paul.

Soon enough, it was Paul letting out a scream of delight — “Let’s go!” — after the last point, then meeting Shelton at the net for a warm hug.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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