Big Win for Big Ben

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Bill Simons

NEW YORK

NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN: Now that the US Open champion Iga Swiatek has lost to Jelena Ostapenko, Aryna Sabalenko will become the new WTA No. 1 after the Open.

AMERICAN WAVE: With Taylor Fritz’s straight-set win against Swiss Dominic Stricker, America has three men into the US Open quarters for the first time since 2005, when Andre Agassi, Robby Ginepri and James Blake all made it… Ben Shelton, Tommy Paul and Seb Korda were all in this year’s Aussie Open quarterfinals. Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Madison Keys and Peyton Stearns are all still in the women’s draw. 

BEN SHELTON: BIG SMILE, BIG SERVE, BIG WIN: Ben Shelton has a joyous, boyish quality. Along with his booming serve he has a beaming smile. He’s so eager and unspoiled. The University of Florida product is only in his first full year on tour – and today he was playing his first match on the massive Ashe Stadium. At first it seemed that the big stage might be too much. Early on, Ben was out of rhythm against his considerable American foe, the 26-year-old Tommy Paul, who reached the Aussie Open semis and was having the best summer of any American. Paul, who beat Carlos Alcaraz a month ago, sprinted ahead and had four break chances to go up 4-1 in the first set. The savvy veteran was taking it to the kid.

But Shelton, who won the NCAA title and reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne, loves the big stage. He remained calm, stepped up and blasted a couple of 149 mph aces, which is just under Andy Roddick’s US Open record of 152 mph.

Eventually Shelton prevailed today, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, and America, for the second year in a row, will have a men’s semifinalist, since Ben will face Frances Tiafoe Tuesday, in an inviting quarterfinal. The two have never played. Fritz will next take on Djokovic. 

GOOD TRY: Tommy Paul revealed how he tried to throw off the big-serving Shelton. “I try and be like overly respectful. Maybe it will get him out of his rhythm. Like on changeovers, ‘Dude, you’re serving great today’ – that sort of thing…But it wasn’t really working.”

WOZ AN ADVENTURE FOR GAUFF: Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. Recently Coco Gauff said that she wished she’d had the opportunity to play Caroline Wozniaki, who retired in 2020. 

Today the Floridian got a full measure of the still wonderful Woz. After dropping the first set, the “still great after all these years” mother of two won the second set and took a lead in the third. For the third time here in New York, Gauff seemed to be in deep trouble.

But, buoyed by her improved forehand, surging confidence, her new coaching team (which includes Brad Gilbert), and an adoring New York throng, the No. 6 in the world hit out and fought back to prevail in a compelling, intergenerational battle of great movers, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.

Coco has only dropped five games in the deciding set in her last three matches that went the distance. She has now reached the quarters in three of her last five majors. The No. 6 in the world thought she might play No. 1 Iga Swiatek, but the former French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko came back to upset the defending US Open champ Swiatek 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. Ostapenko, the No. 21 player in the world, and Gauff split their previous two meetings.

NEWSFLASH – BRAD GILBERT IS A QUIRKY MAN: Coco Gauff said she made her recent coaching switches because she needed to shake things up. In particular she said that Brad Gilbert has brought a lot to her game: good scouting reports and advice on footwork and decision making. 

Then she shared some thoughts about the 62-year-old Californian. “I was worried about being with an older person…but he still has the mind of, like, a 20-year-old, maybe even a 10-year-old kid sometimes…My favorite Brad story is that he played pretty much every match with a Jolly Rancher in his mouth. He’s been giving me Jolly Ranchers all the time. I take them but don’t eat them.

“He also doesn’t like even numbers – he only likes odd numbers…You ask him what time it is, he’s going to say 1:53 or 1:59. He won’t say 12 or something basic…He’s just a really quirky man. He doesn’t sleep. He wakes up at 3:30 every morning….He goes for walks. He also has been sending me crazy playlists of ’60s and ’70s bands, but I haven’t kept up with it.”

SAUDI ARABIA BRINGS ATP AND WTA TOGETHER: It’s amazing how a crisis can shake things up. For years, Billie Jean King, Roger Federer and many others have called for a merger of the ATP and the WTA. But it took initiatives by Saudi Arabia and the possible threat of a hostile takeover in tennis to prompt the two ruling bodies to act.

According to superb reporting from the London Telegraph, top executives of the two groups will be meeting in London to talk about coming together – or even a possible merger – in order to strengthen their positions. 

There are fears that Saudi Arabia will impose its will or even take over tennis, as, to a large degree, it did golf. The kingdom has many harsh critics, who note that the country not only has incredibly repressive stances against women and the LGBTQ+ community, but that it dismembered an outspoken journalist, has imposed war and blockades in the Middle East and has exported a deeply regressive theology to many countries across the globe. Within tennis, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, John McEnroe and others were critical of any moves to embrace Saudi Arabia.

But already, the ATP’s Next Gen event has been awarded to Saudi’s second largest city, Jeddah, and there is talk of the ATP creating a tenth masters for the country, that could be played there between the Shanghai and Paris tournaments.

The WTA has been talking to the kingdom about hosting their year-end championships. But there’s been a lot of blowback and now the Czech Republic or perhaps Mexico will host the vitally important event.

ONE LAST SHAKER OF SALT: Michael Mewshaw, the chief correspondent of Inside Tennis’s Italian bureau, missed his deadline for our coverage of the passing of Jimmy Buffet. But he finally sent us his report from our Rome office. We reprimanded him for sending his copy in late, but soon bathed him in praise for his intimate first hand report.

“Jimmy Buffet did play tennis and I was one of his opponents on Key West’s Bayview Courts. This was back in 1973 when Key West was a raffish enclave of redneck shrimpers and roistering hippies. Jimmy fit in perfectly and played music for tips at the Pier House, then played enthusiastic, if slightly spicy, games at the Bayview Courts. Like his music, his tennis style was sprightly, whimsical, slightly off-kilter, always entertaining.”

KING HONORED IN QUEENS: The other day we shamelessly joked around about the singular Billie Jean King having so many tennis centers, junior tourneys, international team competitions and libraries named after her. Plus, for good reason, she’s won almost every imaginable award short of the Nobel Prize. Last Monday night Barack and Michelle Obama came to celebrate her and the 50th anniversary of equal pay at the US Open. There was much joy and we thought the Billie Jean festivities were over.

But not so fast. The next day the Borough of Queens announced it was Billie Jean King Day. She got a huge plaque and handed out Queens’ Billie Jean King Junior Player of the Year award. Of course, Inside Tennis can only dream of someday winning the much coveted Billie Jean King Medallion in Journalism for excellence in covering Billie Jean King. (Editor’s note: We’re just having fun here about our dear friend Billie.)

YET ANOTHER MEDIA COMMENTARY: In its heyday, the Sunday New York Times was massive. It was said that if one fell out of a plane over Wisconsin, it would kill a cow. These days, it’s not as big but it’s still pretty hefty. This morning’s edition had eight or nine sections. Previously, there was an extensive sports section. But that’s gone. And it was a bit of a challenge to hunt down any tennis reporting. When we found their print coverage, it was a page and half on how ball boys train and a half page on the Open’s most profitable drink, the Honey Deuce. BTW: the Times’s online coverage is wonderful.

A DAY IN THE PARK: Every Grand Slam is next to a park. There’s a leafy Victorian park by Melbourne’s Laver Arena, which just happens to also have the world’s second biggest cricket stadium. Roland Garros is by the beautiful Bois du Boulogne Park where Novak Djokovic likes to go on reflective walks. A while ago the All England Club bought the golf course across the street from Wimbledon. And the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is in a corner of Corona Park in Flushing Meadows. It’s quite a parallel universe to tennis’ biggest haven. On Labor Day weekend, the park rocks. We hear pulsating sounds, weaving bikers, free-form skateboarders, howling babies, doting grandmothers and intense soccer games with a Latin flair. There are an array of family picnics, much urban joy, and life seems like a walk in the park.

NO NEED TO PANIC: Alcaraz lovers were in a tizzy when word came out that he skipped his practice today. The sky was falling. Maybe the kid just wanted to rest before his fourth-round match on Monday against unseeded Matteo Arnaldi.

KILLING OUR BODIES: Professional Tennis Players Association president Vasek Pospisil said the ATP is deliberately slowing down the game by using heavier balls to have longer points. While it’s entertaining for fans, Vasek said, “It’s killing our bodies.”

DANIIL’S LOVE-HATE AFFAIR WITH NEW YAWK FANS ROARS ON: After his win the other night, the always interactive Daniil Medvedev told the crowd, “Thanks to all the guys who don’t shout between first and second serves. There’s one guy, I don’t know if he has a girlfriend or a wife. I don’t know how she’ll sleep because he’s so pumped up he’s gonna end the night saying, ‘Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!’ nonstop.” 

NFL ALERT: It was good to see the New York Jets Aaron Rogers at the Open today. And with the NFL season about to start, we wanted to point out how courageous it was for Tommy Paul, who grew up in South Jersey, to wear a Philadelphia Eagles cap in his recent press conference. During an ESPN conversation on football, Chris Evert jokingly revealed her age when she asked, “Does Don Shula still coach the Miami Dolphins?”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: When talking about his Tuesday night match against Ben Shelton, Frances Tiafoe said, “Two people of color playing in the quarterfinals – huge match on Arthur Ashe. It’s a pretty monumental moment.”

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