Australian Open 2023: American Ben Shelton beats Alexei Popyrin, message for ‘rowdy’ John Cain Arena crowd

There is no place for tennis quite like John Cain Arena.

Nick Kyrgios last year called it “the zoo” and told fans who packed in to the $29-a-ticket stadium they were “out of control”.

The crowd at JCA was at its wildest best again on Saturday night when Australian wildcard Alexei Popyrin tried to continue his remarkable run by booking a place in the last 16 at the Australian Open.

But another young gun, newcomer Ben Shelton had other plans.

The American, who was on his first ever trip outside the United States, had too much power for Popyrin, running away in straight sets to advance 6-3 7-6 6-4 in exactly two hours.

The hugely pro-Aussie crowd cheered loudly for the Australian and at times booed the American who responded by putting his hand to his ear as if to say, “I can’t hear you.”

After the match, he addressed the crowd directly, comparing them to raucous college crowds at home.

“I know I came from college tennis and I thought it was rowdy there but this stadium is something special,” he said.

“I know you were going for your hometown boy today but thanks for everyone out there supporting me. It was really fun to be a part of.” asked Shelton about the crowd after the match. He said he knew he was in a special arena when the crowd “booed me as soon as I walked out”.

“They kind of set the tone when I walked out on the court and got booed. First time in a pro match that that’s happened,” he said.

“I can always respect a country getting behind their guy so it was really cool to see.

“The sound in there kind of vibrates. There were a few Aussie guys screaming for me in the crowd and I don’t think the rest of the Aussies liked that too much.”

Shelton’s story is a remarkable one, with a new chapter being written daily.

Last year he was ranked 570 in the world. With a win on Saturday night he might have moved into the world’s top 50 players.

It is a huge leap for a player who swore he would not lift a tennis racquet when he was 13.

He didn’t want to chase the sport his father played a generation earlier. But love intervened.

“I swore I would never play tennis. I fell in love with the sport and here we are,” he said.

Of the Melbourne crowd, many of whom are now Ben Shelton fans, he asked a favour — would they get rowdy again when he takes on fellow American J.J Wolf in two days time?

“I know that we’re Americans but I hope you come out and support,” he said.

Speaking with reporters after the match, Popyrin said Shelton has all the tools to be a top 10 player.

“Honestly, if this is the way he plays day in and day out, the guy is top 10 in six months,” he said.

“Maybe he can play better than he did today, but if he plays like he played today he is a force to be reckoned with.

“I don’t think I did much wrong.”

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