US Open: Ben Shelton continues shock run into semifinals as he downs fellow American Frances Tiafoe to set up test vs. Novak Djokovic
For a moment, it looked as if Ben Shelton’s biggest strength could be his undoing.
The young American, who reached serve speeds of up to 149mph in his last match, fired 12 aces on Tuesday night and continually unsettled Frances Tiafoe with his power.
But he just couldn’t get his serves to stick over the course of two crucial tiebreak points in the third set, as two consecutive double faults turned a 6-5 advantage into a 7-6 hole.
Not for the only time on the night, though, the 20-year-old found a way to dig himself out, scraping himself to a tiebreak win and an eventual 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-2 victory.
It had been 15 years since two black American men faced off at Arthur Ashe Stadium before Tiafoe and Shelton took center stage on Tuesday.
The previous time a matchup of that description occurred, a 28-year-old James Blake outlasted a 19-year-old Donald Young in five sets, and there was a similar – if slightly less pronounced – gap in experience this time around.
Twenty year-old Shelton has been on the ATP Tour for less than a year, while 25-year-old Tiafoe turned pro back in 2015.
But on Tuesday, it was Shelton who looked like the veteran in what felt like a significant night for American tennis.
There have been distractions and misbehavior from fans at other matches this tournament, but not on this soupy night in Queens, as a crowd including Anna Wintour, Emma Watson and rapper Meek Mill seemed to fully grasp the magnitude of this meeting.
The stakes weren’t lost on the players, either, as Tiafoe nervously fired two double faults in the first game before recovering in a deuce to hold serve.
The next three games would follow that script as the players continued to hold serve, with Shelton’s cannon reaching 139mph to force an error from Tiafoe in a deuce and even the set at 2-2.
Then came the breakthrough.
Tiafoe initially escaped two break points in the next game, with the world no. 10 tallying 10 unforced errors in half as many games.
But after one of several attempted drop shots in the game landed out to force a second break point, Tiafoe could not recover from a third break attempt.
The excitable Shelton let out a yell, his box did the University of Florida’s signature ‘gator chomp’ celebration (he played there for two years), and the Atlanta native was on his way to a first-set win.
Tiafoe struggled to match his opponent’s stunning power, but the newcomer showed guile as well.
A delicately hit backhand winner to take a 15-30 lead in the seventh game showed a player mastering his tools in real time, and helped balloon his lead to 5-2 with another break.
He served for the set in the next game.
Things almost went off the rails again for Tiafoe early in the next set, as he escaped a break at 1-1 to hold serve and regain the lead.
Shelton’s strength of service had, to this point, given his opponent precious little margin for error, and the onus was on his ‘brother’ Tiafoe, as he referred to him earlier in the week, to punch back.
He did so with the set at 3-2 him, forcing a serving Shelton into his sloppiest game of the night, and survived another break point the following game to take a comfy 5-2 set lead.
Two games later, it was Tiafoe’s turn to celebrate, as he fired an ace to clinch a 6-3 set win.
He nodded his head repeatedly as the crowd showed its appreciation for the 2022 semifinalist.
If both of these players fed off the crowd at Ashe, though, it was Shelton who appeared more well-nourished for the rest of the match.
There was no Shelton counterpart to the cries of ‘Let’s go ‘Foe,’ but the crowd appreciated the underdog’s clutch moments and he ultimately produced more of them than his elder.
If the first set was about Shelton’s power, the third was defined by his resilience as he and Tiafoe each broke each other three times in a truly wonky period of play.
Tiafoe hit a beautiful cross court backhand winner to make it 15-30 in the first game of the set – perhaps his best shot of night – but it ultimately wasn’t a sign of things to come despite beginning the set up a break.
Shelton responded immediately the next game with a break – and a highlight-reel, cross-court winner – of his own to gain back control of the set and eventually take a 3-1 lead after breaking his opponent again.
After two more breaks from Tiafoe and yet another reply from Shelton, the final four games saw each player hold serve twice, with one turn of play in particular showing the young Shelton’s fearlessness.
At 4-4, Shelton found himself staring down a deuce after two straight double faults. He missed on a fifth straight serve too on the next point, but had the gumption to fire a 119mph second serve to set up a winner and give himself a slender 5-4 lead.
What came soon after was an epic, topsy-turvy tiebreak where Shelton ultimately held his nerve despite a couple of major wobbles.
The first-time Slam semifinalist fired off two straight aces to open up a 3-2 lead, before finding himself up 6-5 with a chance to serve for the set.
But he double faulted his next two points, putting Tiafoe into the driver’s seat before he fired a cathartic winner down the line to even things up.
He won the set two points later and didn’t look back in the fifth set.