NEW YORK (AP) — When Tommy Paul was a kid growing up in Greenville, North Carolina, his family would drive the 500 or so miles up to New York the week before the U.S. Open to watch qualifying matches — “It was free,” he notes — and catch a glimpse of some pros practicing.
A couple of times, according to Paul, those treks involved a visit to an emergency room on the tournament grounds: his sister was bitten by a poisonous spider; his mother passed out and hit her head after seeing a player get badly injured.
“Every year,” Paul said, “we always had something terrible happen.”
This trip to Flushing Meadows is going far more smoothly so far for Paul — and other American men. The 26-year-old Paul, the No. 14 seed, earned a debut appearance in the fourth round at the U.S. Open by hitting 15 aces and getting broken just once during a 6-1, 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 victory over No. 21 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday.
“I was kind of, like, ‘Really, they’re putting me on Ashe?’ I knew there was a pretty strong schedule of people,” said Paul, who never before had played in the 23,000-seat main stadium. “I was kind of surprised. … Hopefully I’ll be back many more times.”
That’s bound to happen if he keeps playing like this. Paul is part of a group of 20-something American men making moves on tour, and at this hard-court tournament, against a backdrop of a 20-year drought since the last major tennis championship for a man from the United States.
“These guys are all such good friends. They grew up together. They’ve trained together. They’ve played on teams together. They know each other’s games so well. And they see each other as equals in a lot of ways,” U.S. Davis Cup captain Bob Bryan said. “And when one of that group is making a dent on the tour, it’s only natural that the others start to believe, as well.”
At least one American is guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals, because Paul’s next opponent is unseeded Ben Shelton, a 20-year-old from Florida. Shelton advanced Friday by defeating Aslan Karatsev of Russia 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 with the help of 26 aces — and one serve at 147 mph (237 kph), the fastest hit by anyone in the tournament.
“He’s a guy who has every shot in the book. A great athlete. Great mover. Amazing defensive skills, but can also play offense. He’s a really savvy tennis player. He uses his brain a lot on court to beat his opponent,” Shelton said about Paul. “I have some … similar qualities.”
Paul beat Shelton when they met in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January; they teamed up in doubles at the Miami Open two months later.
Also into the fourth round are No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, and No. 10 Frances Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland. Fritz overwhelmed Czech qualifier Jakub Mensik, who turned 18 on Friday, 6-1, 6-2, 6-0; Tiafoe was a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) winner against No. 22 Adrian Mannarino of France.
A fifth U.S. man can join them when wild-card entry Michael Mmoh plays Jack Draper of Britain on Saturday.
“This is a group that had a lot of ability. Always had a lot of talent. Guys were doing really well in their age groups growing up. We competed against each other in big matches, juniors, Futures, Challengers. Now we’re at the top of the game,” said Tiafoe, who now plays 110th-ranked Rinky Hijikata, a 22-year-old wild-card entry from Australia. “You see guys do certain things, it makes you believe it, right? The guys you grew up with, rubbed shoulders with and stuff — you see them do well, you’re like, ‘Wow, if this guy is doing it, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do it?’ It’s kind of a domino effect.”
Tiafoe reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open a year ago — beating Rafael Nadal before losing to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz — and is the first man from the United States to get to the fourth round in New York for four consecutive years since Andre Agassi in 2002-05.
Tiafoe was not exactly in fine form ahead of his return: He lost three of four matches on hard courts leading into this U.S. Open.
Not that he cares about that now.
“The summer’s irrelevant,” Tiafoe said. “It’s all about this tournament, honestly.”
At night in Ashe, Coco Gauff took the last 10 games to come back and beat No. 32 Elise Mertens of Belgium 3-6, 6-3, 6-0. There was another comeback in the last match of Friday’s schedule — which actually finished after 1:30 a.m. on Saturday: 23-time major champion Novak Djokovic’s 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Laslo Djere.
Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion, became the top woman to exit so far. The No. 4 seed fell to No. 30 Sorana Cirstea 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-4.
Earlier, defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek raised her 6-0 set total this season to 19 by eliminating her good friend Kaja Juvan 6-0, 6-1 in 49 minutes with an edge of 21-2 — that’s not a typo — in winners; 2018 Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki continued her comeback after 3 1/2 years in retirement by defeating Jennifer Brady 4-6, 6-3, 6-1; and French Open runner-up Karolina Muchova got past Taylor Townsend 7-6 (0), 6-3.
Wozniacki, 33, faces Gauff, 19, for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Entering the 2022 U.S. Open, Paul never had won a match at the place. Then he claimed a pair of five-setters before bowing out in the third round against runner-up Casper Ruud.
“Normally when I’m done with tournaments, I don’t watch anymore,” said Paul, who signed his initials on one fan’s head Friday. “But ‘Foe’ is pretty much my favorite player to turn on and watch, so I couldn’t not tune in and watch it. … It not only brings confidence to him but also to us, because we all know that we can play at that level, too.”
Sure enough, at the next major tournament, the Australian Open, Paul produced his own breakthrough by making it to the semifinals before losing to Djokovic.
“There is very healthy competition amongst all of us,” Paul said about the U.S. contingent. “I mean, in no way would I say jealousy between us. We push each other with results or in practice.”
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