Melbourne, Australia, 21 January 2023 | Vivienne Christie

When Alexei Popyrin returned to John Cain Arena for his third-round Australian Open match, he encountered a disarmingly similar opponent in Ben Shelton.

Shelton, like Popyrin, had built his game around an explosive serve and as the young American’s confidence grew throughout the two-hour encounter, he complemented it with some blazing groundstrokes with devastating effect. .

The added element for the world No.89 was his nothing-to-lose fearlessness. Shelton wasn’t simply contesting his first tournament outside American but is also travelling for the first time outside his homeland.

And as all those factors combined, the 20-year-old added to his remarkable recent rise with a 6-3 7-6(4) 6-4 victory over the Australian – disarming both the exuberant home crowd support and Popyrin’s usual firepower.

“Honestly if this is the way he plays day in, day out, the guy is top 10 in six months,” said Popyrin of Shelton, who charged into the world’s top 100 after winning a trio of ATP Challenger titles in 2022.

While noting three break point opportunities that he failed to convert in the second set, the Australian also pointed out that as Shelton relentlessly attacked, he never quite relaxed into the match.

“I don’t think I did much wrong. I think when I had my chance, he played them out,” Popyrin added. “He played great today. Not taking anything away from him.”

Recording 34 winners against 25 unforced errors, Shelton was pleased with how his attacking strategy played out.

“I just thought it was really important than I stepped up and played a little more offensive,” he said.

“I’ve seen Popyrin play his last few matches and he’s been bullying people around the court, so I thought it was important today to try and take it to him and I thought I did a good job of it.”

> READ: De Minaur charges into Australian Open fourth round 

For Popyrin, there are many positives to take from a sixth main-draw campaign at his home Grand Slam – most notably, consecutive five-set victories over Tseng Chun-Hsin and against No.8 seed Taylor Fritz.

In an Australian summer that saw Popyrin qualifying for the Adelaide International stun No.2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the first round, there was also a successful start to his new coaching partnership with former top-20 ATP player, Xavier Malisse.

“I think there’s positives I can take out from the whole month. From the top of my head, two top-10 wins. I’ve got six matches, won more than five matches in,” said the 23-year-old, noting the pleasing form turnaround after claiming only five ATP-level match wins last year.

“For me, just the level that I played, the level I competed is a huge difference from where I was three, four months ago from when the season ended last year.”

By matching his best result at the Australian Open, the world No.113 Popyrin is projected to return to the world’s top-100 when ATP rankings are next released.

There was better news for fellow Australian Alex de Minaur, who moved into the Australian Open fourth round for a second straight year, after a straight-sets victory over Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi.

Men’s singles, third round
[22] Alex de Minaur (AUS) d Benjamin Bonzi (FRA) 7-6(0) 6-2 6-1
Ben Shelton (USA) d [WC] Alexei Popyrin (AUS) 6-3 6-4 6-4 

Men’s singles, fourth round
[22] Alex de Minaur (AUS) v TBC

> VIEW: Australian Open 2023 men’s singles draw

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