Rising American ends Popyrin’s Open run
Australia’s Alexei Popyrin is out of the Australian Open, falling to Ben Shelton in an entertaining third-round clash where the young American put a marker down as the rising player on tour.
Popyrin was hardly disgraced in a clinical performance by the 20-year-old, who grew with confidence through the match, winning 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4. The left-hander’s swinging for the lines, often with success, was enough for tennis pundits to sit up and take notice.
Alexei Popyrin’s run at the Australian Open has come to an end.Credit:AP
Popyrin, 23, won two big five-setters just to get to this point but Saturday night’s straight-sets loss to the highly regarded Shelton wasn’t a case of the Australian succumbing to nerves or the occasion of a high-profile night clash on the tournament’s middle Saturday.
Plainly and simply, Popyrin came across an opponent to watch and who could continue to climb the rankings quickly. Shelton is a relative newbie to the ATP Tour after a college background but, on the evidence in Melbourne so far, he’s a player with a game to match the talk.
He reeled off 34 winners compared to Popyrin’s 23 and while his first serve was behind the Australian on accuracy, Shelton usually capitalised.
With the carrot of his best result at one of the sport’s four slams enticingly in front of him, it’s back to the training yard for Popyrin. He shouldn’t be disappointed. Instead he can focus on some gains, including his big five-set second-round win over Taylor Fritz.
Ben Shelton (left) is congratulated by Alexei Popyrin.Credit:AP
This run at Melbourne Park equals Popyrin’s best finishes at his home slam – runs to the final 32 in 2019 and 2020. He’s also gone that deep on the Flushing Meadows hard courts in New York in 2019 and 2021.
For now, however, the hopes and dreams of a second-week run at any of the majors is still out of his grasp.
Australia’s Alex de Minaur is the sole remaining local hope in either the men’s or women’s singles events. De Minaur is in the fourth round with a showdown against either Novak Djokovic or Grigor Dimitrov to come.
A big-serving and eye-catching leftie, Shelton had the goods in all the big moments, whereas Popyrin will be lamenting the occasional lapse.
Shelton gained the ascendancy with a 33-minute opening set, quickly finding his rhythm and his willingness to go for the lines already on show.
He had 13 winners by then compared to Popyrin’s eight. A little worryingly, however, the Australian’s unforced error count was already up to 10.
To his credit, Popyrin entered the second set with plenty of resolve. Slugging it out and taking his game up to world No.89 Shelton, they eventually got to a tie-breaker.
It was here that the smiling and good-natured American stoop up, having a touch more composure.
Truth be told, Popyrin will look back to the seventh game of the second set when it was his time to strike. The lanky right-hander forced three break-point chances but couldn’t quite convert.
It was a willing game but the Florida-raised Shelton came out of it with a bit more step in his stride.
Shelton will play unranked compatriot J.J Wolf in the fourth round after the unranked American beat another American, lucky loser Michael Mmoh, earlier on Saturday. The bottom quarter of the men’s draw opened up noticeably. Who knows – could Shelton be the big bolter of 2023?
Shelton has been one to watch for months now and is suddenly close to a dream quarter-final at his major debut. If you hadn’t heard his name yet, you’ll be hearing plenty more soon.
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