Black American men make some noise at Australian Open

Who would have thought that an African American not named Frances Tiafoe would reach the men’s quarterfinals of the 2023 Australian Open? 

Or, for that matter, who would have thought there would be more than a couple African Americans, including Tiafoe, even playing in the main draw of the event? There were four!  

And, finally, who would have thought each of them would advance to the second round of the first major tournament of the year? 

As far as I can recall, there have never been four Black players in the main draw of an ATP major tournament, or any tour-level tournament.  

So, hat’s off to Tiafoe, Ben Shelton, Michael Mmoh and Christopher Eubanks, a quartet that could spark a groundswell of inspiration among young black males to take up tennis. Shelton, Mmoh and Eubanks each returned home having achieved at least one personal milestone Down Under. 

For Shelton, 20, there were several. The trip to Melbourne was the Atlanta native’s maiden voyage outside the United States – for anything. Not only did he win his first match at a major tournament, but he also advanced to his first quarterfinals in what was just his second major tournament since turning pro last August.

His major tournament debut was at the 2022 US Open, where he was awarded a wild card entry for winning that year’s NCAA national singles championship as a University of Florida sophomore. He lost a five-setter in the first round. 

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 23: Ben Shelton of the United States celebrates winning in the fourth round singles match against J.J. Wolf of the United States during day eight of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

After the US Open, the son of former World No. 55 Bryan Shelton, a Black Tennis Hall of Fame member and coach of the Florida Gators tennis team, won three consecutive ATP Challenger tournaments to move into the top 100 in the rankings. That earned him an automatic spot in the Australian Open’s main draw.  

As a result of reaching the quarterfinals, Shelton jumped up 45 spots in the rankings to a new career high No. 44. He added $373,000 to his bank account, already more than he earned all of last season.  

For Mmoh, the tournament became almost surreal as he made his deepest run in a major since turning pro in 2016. He had failed to gain a spot in the main draw upon losing in the third and final round of the qualifiers. But before he could pack for the trip, Mmoh got a call saying a spot had opened up because of a player’s withdrawal. 

Mmoh became what’s known on tour as a “lucky loser.” And, oh, how he took advantage of the opportunity. The 25-year-old stormed back from a two-set deficit in the first round, then knocked of former Top Ten player and US Open finalist Alexander Zverev in four sets to advance to the third, where his streak ended. 

“Life is crazy,” Mmoh wrote on the camera lens after the match defeating Zverev. During post-match comments, he added, “Right when you think everything is looking dim, everything is looking dark, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. My week is proof of that.” 

TOPSHOT – Michael Mmoh of the US celebrates after victory against Germany’s Alexander Zverev during their men’s singles match on day four of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 19, 2023. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Mmoh entered the tournament ranked 107 in the world. He moved up 24 spots to 83 and pocketed nearly $200,000 for his effort.   

For Eubanks, getting his first main-draw win at the Australian Open was a major accomplishment. He suffered first-round losses in 2019 and 2020, then failed to make it out of qualifiers in 2021 and 2022. 

This year, the 26-year-old former Georgia Tech standout, who has become a frequent contributor on Tennis Channel as an analyst/commentator, was granted a wild-card entry. He was ranked 116, a career high, when the tournament began. He’s now at a new high of 103. 

As for Tiafoe, 26, it was probably disappointing to only reach the third round, considering his brilliant play over the past four months. He reached his first major semi-final at last year’s US Open, knocking out World No. 2 and 22-time major champion Rafael Nadal along the way. A few weeks later, he sealed the first Laver Cup victory for Team World with a dazzling victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas.  

Many expected the super-talented Hyattsville, Md., native to equal or exceed his 2019 quarterfinal showing at the Australian Open. Tiafoe entered this year’s tournament at a career-high ranking of 17, with a 5-0 record, including a couple of victories to help the U.S. team win the first ever United Cup championship Down Under a couple weeks ago. 

While Tiafoe quickly became the top-ranked Black American tennis player after he turned pro in 2015 – he moved up to No. 15 after the Australian Open — he could have some company inside the ATP Top 20 if Shelton continues to progress at the current rate. 

As was the case with Spanish teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz a couple of years ago, ATP players are taking stock of Shelton. 

“If this is the way he plays day in and day out, the guy is top 10 in six months” said Aussie Alexei Popyrin, who took out top-ranked American Taylor Fritz in the first round, then lost to Shelton in straight sets. “He hit the lines. He averages second serves at 190 (kph). Not much you can do in terms of attacking a second serve. It makes it even harder that he’s a lefty.” 

Shelton clocked the fastest serve of the tournament at 228 km/h, and he led the field with 85 aces. But the young gun’s arsenal also includes a fearsome forehand. He served notice of his arrival on tour last July with his first ATP tour-level win in Atlanta and a victory over top-10 player Casper Ruud at the Master’s 1000 tournament in Cincinnati a few weeks later. 

When I asked Black tennis historian Bob Davis what he thought of Shelton’s run Down Under, he summed it up in two words: “Very cool.”

Paul Annacone, Tennis Channel analyst and former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, said Shelton has both the physical and mental tools to excel on tour. 

“He’s got all the ingredients between the ears, and he’s got all the weapons to be extremely dangerous on either side of the net,” Annacone said. “When you have those kinds of weapons and that kind of positive attitude, you’re going to see some good results.” 

If Shelton continues to climb and Tiafoe continues to shine and Mmoh and Eubanks become embedded inside the top 100, this could be a banner year for Black tennis history.  



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