New York, USA – American fans had plenty to cheer about over the Labor Day weekend holiday – led by inspired success from Team Yonex members.
Tenth-seeded Frances Tiafoe (USA) was able to fend off a challenge from 22-year-old wild card Rinky Hijikata (AUS), while fellow American Ben Shelton (USA) won an all-Yonex showdown with Tommy Paul (USA) to advance to a second major quarterfinal this year after making it that far at the Australian Open in January.
On the women's side, No.30 Sorana Cirstea (ROU) has claimed back-to-back Yonex matchups to reach the last eight at a Grand Slam for the first time since Roland Garros in 2009. The 33-year-old, who has experienced many ups and downs in her long career, is playing some of her best tennis.
Shelton gets revenge, faces close friend Tiafoe
Shelton, still only 20, recalled their first match in Melbourne in January as “a new experience:” “I was panicking,” he said.
Seven months later, in front of a packed house of home fans inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Shelton proved that he has grown significantly since then.
Having decided to turn pro at the end of last season, Shelton did not even have a passport before his trip Down Under. Still, he cracked the top 100 in the rankings, and traveled overseas for the first time, making it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in his debut at the event.
He faced Paul there, the elder American a winner 7-6(6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
It’s been a season of firsts for Shelton since then, playing for the first time on red clay and grass courts, and experiencing the difficulties of time zones and travel, the rigors of pro tennis.
"I think it's something that has definitely improved in my game," Shelton said of better net play and an all-court approach. "I think that the net game is tricky: It's something that has to be practiced. It's a lot tougher to volley in matches and make great volleys because the margins are so small."
It is also because of his growing experience that Shelton is able to perform at his best in pressure situations. Against Paul, he faced 14 break points across four sets, but was broken just three times.
He also hit 16 aces and smacked a tournament-leading 149 mph ace – twice.
"When I'm playing my best tennis and things are flowing, I love those pressure moments," he said. “That's when I come up with my plus-one plays or the volleys. It's like I fall in love with those moments and I'm not scared of them at all."
The 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Paul was a proof of growth.
Shelton's quarterfinal is against Tiafoe, whom he says is "like a brother to me".
In the fourth round, Tiafoe struggled a bit against Hijikata's solid and vigorous play. But Tiafoe showed his strength and experience to claim the first set, then won going away, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
Tiafoe knows that Shelton has dreamed of this all-American match-up for some time in New York, and the higher-ranked semifinalist from a year ago knows he’ll have to manage the match from his side of the net.
"Ben has wanted to play me at the Open for a long time, so he's going to be super excited,” Tiafoe said. “He's going to come out with a lot of energy."
Cirstea, Vondrousova make Final 8
Cirstea's momentum continued after she took out 2022 Wimbledon champ Elena Rybakina (KAZ) in the third round in a three-set thriller, eliminating 15th-seeded Belinda Bencic 6-3, 6-3, in just one hour and 25 minutes.
It marks the first time since 2009 that Cirstea has reached the last eight of a Grand Slam, a 14-year gap. Still, the 33-year-old veteran stresses that this success did not come suddenly.
"I think I have been playing quite well for a while,” she said. “I felt a lot of times I came up a bit short, like the results would not match the work I have put in."
Recent Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova (CZE) proved that she is capable to win on any surface. In the fourth round, she lost the first set to American Peyton Stearns, but gradually adapted and overcame a shoulder injury to win in three, 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-2.
Cirstea takes on Karolina Muchova (CZE), while Vondrousova meets American Madison Keys for respective spots in the semfinals.
Tommy Paul (USA) | VCORE 98[LINK]
Sorana Cirstea (ROU) | EZONE 100[LINK]