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Opportunity knocks in wide-open men's quarter

  • Alex Sharp

Call it the land of opportunity, call it what you want; the bottom quarter of the men's singles draw at Australian Open 2023 has become a smorgasbord of intriguing storylines.

Take a look at that section of the draw, and there's not a single top 20 player in contention to reach the latter stages at Melbourne Park. 

MORE: AO 2023 men's singles draw

Instead, there is a collection of eight players with a kaleidoscope of backgrounds, targeting a shot at the semifinals. Next Gen stars, a former world No.1, a college supremo … and there's certainly an American flavour to proceedings. 

Who can snatch away this chance? Who has the nerve to switch the narrative to their angle?

MORE: Day 6 schedule of play

Ripples of excitement turned to waves when Jenson Brooksby, on his Australian Open debut, halted No.2 seed Casper Ruud in four sets on Thursday.

"I believe I'm a great competitor," declared the 22-year-old. "I want to win big matches and get as high as I can, and I believe I can." 

No shortage of confidence there. 

The year's first major has become the US Open. Okay, that's tongue in check, but world No.35 Tommy Paul (forever linked to his promising junior career) will go toe-to-toe against Brooksby in the third round as two of five Americans in this quarter.

The stars and stripes will also be represented in another all-American duel on Saturday between the explosive power of J.J Wolf, another on debut at Melbourne Park, and 'lucky loser' Michael Mmoh.

Remarkably, having lost in qualifying, Mmoh had his bags packed and flight home booked for Wednesday. Forget that; the 25-year-old has now chalked up his best Grand Slam showing.

Mmoh escaped from two sets down and saved match point in the opening round. On Thursday he was in dreamland, dismissing No.12 seed Alexander Zverev in four sets. 

"Life is crazy. Right when you think everything is looking dim, looking dark, there's light at the end of the tunnel. My week is proof of that," said Mmoh with an infectious grin.

"I told myself on match point, 'just go for it, you're not supposed to be here.' The fact that I'm here is insane."

During his childhood, Mmoh would visit Melbourne at Christmas to see cousins. Those family members were in the stands to witness Mmoh's moment. 

“This is kind of my second home, so I might as well make it a second coming," he said.

The magic moments keep on coming in this captivating quarter.

Alexei Popyrin endured a torrid 2022, but has well and truly flipped the script. The scenes on John Cain Arena erupting in celebration, his heartfelt on-court interview; a five-set victory over No.8 seed Taylor Fritz on Thursday was monumental for the 23-year-old Australian wildcard.

Popyrin soaked up every moment of his magical win (Getty Images)

"This win means so much to me," said Popyrin as he held back the tears. "I had the toughest year last year. I've already won as many matches this year as the whole of last year. 

"I don't want that feeling ever again. I'm going to keep working, keep pushing and try to keep going all the way. I love this feeling, I want more of this feeling. I want you guys (the crowd) to have this feeling more." 

Over the net on Saturday will be Ben Shelton. The college tennis champion roared onto the Tour in 2022 and has thrived on his first ever trip abroad. 

"I'm excited for what's to come and grateful that I got the chance to come here," said a beaming Shelton, playing almost carefree at Melbourne Park. 

"I think the hardest part was just dealing with the time change and getting my legs back and just how I felt. Obviously, it's my first trip out of the country, so I have never dealt with a time change more than three hours.

"Now I think I'm starting to hit my stride." 

Shelton's factor of being relatively unknown could really play into his hands.

For Andy Murray, you couldn't write this script. Four years ago a devastated Murray thought his career was over following an epic first-round tussle with Roberto Bautista Agut

This January, the five-time finalist has prevailed in successive five-set rollercoasters, playing the longest match of his career (5 hours and 45 minutes) to finish at 4am on Friday versus Thanasi Kokkinakis. The Scot is simply in warrior mode. 

Saturday features a Melbourne Park reunion between Murray and 'RBA.' Can the three-time Grand Slam champion roll back the years? Or will Bautista Agut emerge from the shadow of his fellow Spaniards such as Carlos Alcaraz and Rafael Nadal to surge into contention with a second career major semifinal?

What a collection of eight avenues, what a chance to snatch away a final-four spot. Buckle up, this could be some ride.