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American men’s tennis is on the verge of a Grand Slam breakthrough

Ben Shelton, Frances Tiafoe, and Taylor Fritz hope to end an American men’s Grand Slam drought

American men’s tennis is having a bit of a moment.

While the American women have shined on the main stage for years, the last Grand Slam winner from the United States on the men’s side came back in 2003. That year, Andre Agassi won the Australian Open to start the season, while Andy Roddick secured the U.S. Open to close out the year.

Could that drought end in a few days?

For the first time since 2005 three American men are through to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. That year it was James Blake, Agassi, and Robby Ginepri who advanced, with Agassi eventually losing in the Final to Roger Federer.

This year a youth movement is underway, with Frances Tiafoe, Ben Shelton, and Taylor Fritz — the top-ranked American on the men’s side — all set to play in the quarterfinals today. And with Tiafoe and Shelton squaring off, the Americans are guaranteed to see at least one advance to the semis.

So who are the three stars hoping to end that drought, and can one of them pull it off?

Taylor Fritz

US Open Tennis Championship 2023 Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

We can start with Fritz, who faces the most daunting challenge of the three left standing: A date with Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Fritz, who won the 2015 U.S. Open Junior Championship, enters as the top-ranked American on the men’s side. This is just his second appearance in the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event, his first coming back at Wimbledon a year ago.

He has six titles under his belt, five of which have come since the start of last season. In one of those events, the Masters event at Indian Wells last year, he topped Rafael Nadal in straight sets to claim the title.

While his best performance at a Grand Slam event this year prior to the U.S. Open was a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open, Fritz has a pair of hard court titles to his credit this season: Delray Beach and Atlanta. In all, four of his six titles have come on hard courts.

To make that five out of seven, he will have to get by Djokovic, who he has not beaten in seven tries. His best result against Djokovic came back at the 2021 Australian Open, when he pushed him to five sets in the third round. They last met in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, when Djokovic won in straight sets.

“Novak’s gotten me a lot, [but] I think one of these times I’m going to get him so I’ll keep trying,” Fritz said when interviewed following his fourth-round victory. “At least I hope ... I’ve got nothing to lose. So I’m going to go out there and have fun and play my best tennis because I know when I do, I give myself a chance.”

Ben Shelton

2023 US Open - Day 7 Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

If you were scrolling social media on Sunday during Shelton’s fourth-round match against another American, 14th-ranked Tommy Paul, you probably saw lots of tweets like this one:

Shelton ranked not one, but two aces at 149 mph, just shy of the record of 152 mph set by Roddick. If you are wondering what that looks like, here you go:

Even Paul could only stop and applaud.

In many ways, “Box Office Ben” as he is known — due to pure entertainment he provides during matches with his athleticism, power, and affinity for playing to the crowd — is still learning the game. While he comes from a tennis family (his father Bryan was a professional and won two ATP events before going into coaching, and his mother was a highly-ranked junior player) Shelton was a multi-sport athlete growing up with a focus on football.

But as middle school came around, he gravitated towards tennis, and his playing career took off. He eventually committed to play tennis at the University of Florida for his father, who had taken over the Gators program after 13 years at Georgia Tech, where he helped deliver one national title.

The pair delivered Florida’s first national title back in 2021.

Like Fritz, this is just Shelton’s second appearance in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, the first coming at the Australian Open this year.

While his power, both in the service game as well as in the volley game, are his calling card the 6’4 left-hander is learning how to change things up. “It’s not about always hitting through the guy that you’re playing,” Shelton said last week. “I’ve kind of found being out here on tour, everyone is really good at hitting the ball. You hit it hard, hit it the same speed, guys can play and they can play really well. I think having some variety and mixing things up is something that’s important for me and my game style.”

He has yet to reach the semifinals of an event, let alone take home a title. But he can change all that starting today.

Standing in his way?

The tenth-ranked player in the world, France Tiafoe.

Frances Tiafoe

2023 US Open - Day 7 Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

A year ago in Queens, Tiafoe put together a masterful run to the semifinals at the U.S. Open, before losing to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz in a thrilling five-set match that took more than four hours.

But before he departed that night, he had a message for the crowd at Flushing Meadows.

He would be back.

“I came here wanting to win a U.S. Open and I feel like I let you guys down. This one really, really hurts. Too good from Carlos,” said Tiafoe. “I am going to come back and I will win this thing one day.”

Tiafoe is on the cusp of fulfilling that promise.

He has three career titles to his name, the first of which came at Delray Beach back in 2018. The other two have both come this year, one in Houston at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships, and the other at the 2023 BOSS Open in Stuttgart back in June. That victory propelled him into the top ten in the men’s rankings for the first time in his career.

Now standing in the way of him making good on that promise a year ago? Shelton, who he considers a friend. The two have never faced each other on tour, but according to Tiafoe, Shelton has been waiting for this day.

“Ben has wanted to play me at the Open for a long time,” Tiafoe said following his fourth-round win on Sunday. “So he’s going to be super excited. He’s going to come out with a lot of energy.”

How does the 25-year-old Tiafoe plan on pulling out the win?

By being the veteran.

“I’m just going to have to tame him down, try to be the vet and get the win. It’s going to be good,” added Tiafoe. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere, I think great representation for people of color, right? Two people of color playing in the quarterfinals, huge match on Arthur Ashe. It’s a pretty monumental moment. I’m pretty excited to compete against him. Hopefully it’s a great battle.”

But can one of them actually break the drought?

Given that Shelton and Tiafoe are squaring off — and Fritz has the daunting task of taking on Djokovic — it is likely that the best chance for an American win this weekend comes from the Shelton/Tiafoe winner.

While Shelton has shown tremendous power all tournament long, Tiafoe has the experience. During his run to last year’s semis he topped 14th-seeded Diego Schwartzman in the third round, Nadal (who was the second seed a year ago) in the fourth round, and then ninth-seeded Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals.

That is one heck of a gauntlet.

One that has prepared him to fulfill that promise he made a year ago.