NEW YORK — As anticipated, 23-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic will face a surging, joyful 20-year-old at the final tennis major of the year. But he’ll do so one round earlier than expected. With a matchup against world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz still looming in Sunday’s final, Djokovic will first face Ben Shelton, the big-hitting, bigger-smiling American who took down two of the top-ranked U.S. men, Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe, in back-to-back matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium this week.
“I’m pretty pumped about the opportunity to go back out there and have the same feeling I have today against another really tough opponent,” Shelton said after his four-set win over Tiafoe in the quarterfinals late Tuesday. “I’ve been enjoying every moment on court, the interactions with the crowd and the tennis that’s being played.”
The unseeded Shelton was not the name on the lips of U.S. tennis fans hoping to watch an American man contest a Grand Slam final — in their home Slam, no less — for the first time since 2009. But he’s the last American man standing.
“I love to see American tennis going in a great direction and tennis in general going in a great direction,” Shelton said. It’s been two decades since Andy Roddick won here in 2003, the last American man to win a major, and this year, this Slam, seemed as good a time as any for someone to end that streak. The U.S. has eight players ranked in the ATP’s top 50, and Taylor Fritz and Tiafoe, ranked Nos. 9 and 10 in the world, have been building toward a breakout run at a major.
On Tuesday, and for the first time since 2005, three American men played in the quarters in Queens — including Fritz and Tiafoe — but only Shelton, who is ranked No. 47 and seeking his first tour-level title, emerged.
Over the past week and a half, Shelton has been calm and confident in big moments like the pivotal third-set tiebreaker against Tiafoe that ended one of the wildest sets of the tournament. Tied at one set apiece, the third set opened with six breaks in the first eight games — three from each player. In the tiebreaker, Shelton double-faulted, twice, at set point and then smashed a 105-mph forehand return to the corner and eventually won the breaker 9-7.
“It’s one of my biggest weapons, my serve, so to lose two points the way I did was unfortunate and frustrated me,” Shelton said. “Down set point, I needed to let some of that frustration out. All set, I’d been so uptight about things, trying hard to hold serve. I’d gotten broken, broke back and had so much stress. I needed a release.”
That moment changed the momentum of the match for the final time, and illustrated what Shelton described as his mental growth 14 months into his professional career.
“I’ve done a good job of blocking out what’s going on around me when I need to,” Shelton said. “When the point is playing, I don’t hear or see anything. I’m just practicing in a park. That’s been surprising to me, how calm I’ve been able to stay in the moment.”
Shelton’s scorching forehands and nearly 150 mph serves have been the talk of the tournament. But against Tiafoe, another big hitter, he mixed up his serve speeds and shot selection to great success, especially late in the match. Afterward, he borrowed the championship celebration of his friend, sprinter Grant Holloway, who won his third straight 110-meter hurdles world title last month, and mimed answering a landline phone and then slamming down the receiver.
“It’s like I’m saying I’m dialed in,” Shelton said, adding that, yes, growing up in Atlanta, his family had a home phone “just like that.” In the news conferences after his matches, Shelton similarly vacillates between narrow-eyed seriousness and youthful playfulness, a reminder he is contesting only his fifth major. He lost here in the first round last year in his first Grand Slam appearance.
A star in college tennis and the 2022 NCAA singles champion, Shelton tested the ATP tour waters last spring before leaving the University of Florida, where his father, Bryan Shelton, spent 11 years as head coach, to join the tour full time. (Bryan resigned in June to join his son.) He made a run into the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January before losing to Paul and now is into his first Grand Slam semifinal, where he will attempt to stop Djokovic’s drive toward a record-tying 24th major title.
“I think whenever you play someone for the first time, someone who’s been in this situation so many times and you know how rock solid the guy is, and mentally and physically tough, that’s something I have to game plan for,” Shelton said ahead of Friday’s match. “I also think it’s an advantage with my game style to play someone who’s never played me. I’m going to try and bring some things to the table that are different and hopefully disrupt him.”
Of course, that is no easy task against a player who’s done his fair share of work to keep American players from hoisting major trophies. Djokovic has won 30 straight matches against Americans, his most recent in straight sets over Fritz in the quarterfinals. But in Shelton, Djokovic faces a young lefty with nothing to lose and a mounting fan base.
When asked if he might also have an advantage because he has had more of an opportunity to study Djokovic’s game since he’s been on tour nearly as long as Shelton’s been alive, the Gainesville, Florida, resident didn’t flinch. “The way things are on tour with technology, you can watch so much film on the people you’re playing,” Shelton said. “It’s a pretty even playing field.”