Djokovic Hangs Up on Shelton

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

New York 

Like golf, tennis is a country club game. Like soccer, it’s international. Like basketball it demands athleticism and footwork. It’s a brutal one-on-one Darwinian battle like boxing. But as much as anything, the game is like mountain climbing – you have to summit. In tennis, ultimately, it’s about winning a Grand Slam. 

Yes, over the past half decade or so, American men’s tennis has established a lot of great base camps. John Isner, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock made runs. And yet Rafa, Roger and Novak ruled.

But now there’s an American wave. Taylor Fritz is No. 9. Seb Korda and Jenson Brooksby had their moments. No. 10 Frances Tiafoe downed Rafa at the 2022 US Open, Tommy Paul reached the Aussie Open semi and Chris Eubanks was sensational at Wimbledon. 

In four of the last five Slams, Americans have climbed high. But we haven’t captured the Holy Grail in 20 years. 

Enter 20-year-old Ben Shelton, the kid with an “it” factor, the coach’s son with the sunny personality – puffy cheeks, bulging biceps, live arm and beaming smile. Shelton played quarterback and soccer as a kid, coming to tennis late. College tennis gave him much. And he’s paid some dues, winning challengers and learning lessons on European clay.

He rose from No. 530 to within the top 50 in a flash and made it to the Aussie Open quarters. But his clay and grass-court seasons were dismal. He only twice won back-to-back matches.

Then again, his father and coach Bryan Shelton says one of his son’s great qualities is knowing how to turn it on. You think? Shelton’s a puncher who unleashes 149 mph aces and laser forehand winners that freeze his foes.

Then he’ll double fault twice in a row. Here at the Open he made the usually savvy Paul seem almost hapless. Shelton’s barrage tamed Tiafoe.

Today as mid-afternoon lightning approached Queens, the question was: could Shelton’s lightning strike?

Certainly his blasts drew oohs and ahhs. First-strike, big-boy tennis has its appeal – 143 mph serves dazzle, laser forehands amaze. But after two impressive holds, young Ben bent. He botched a volley. Novak broke with ease and seemed to be sprinting to a first-set win.

Shelton did save four set points. But, John McEnroe noted, “Right now it seems to be a little bit of a wing and a prayer.”

Soon the master class was on. The 36-year-old, who’s won 23 Slams and who was in his record 47th Slam semi, was happy to have had two days off. He’s the best indoor player of our time – and Ashe’s roof was closed. Novak devours lefties who aren’t named Rafa. He’s prevailed 30 straight times against Americans. He had a 29-1 record in majors against foes who were playing at home. The man relishes adversity.

Today the pro-Shelton headline in the US Open program said, “The Future is Now.” But now Nole was dishing out pain. Serving with confidence, absorbing Shelton’s power, running Ben to the corners, Nole called on his unrivaled experience with a craftsman’s ease. Nole answered every question that was thrown his way. What other man has overcome more obstacles in a wider range of tennis arenas?

Novak sailed through the first two sets and was close to going up two breaks in the third set. The GOAT was in full control. Things were tidy and drama free – and then they weren’t. 

Ben Shelton ended a marathon exchange with a massive overhead that prompted Ashe Stadium’s honey-deuced fans to roar. Novak was left scratching his head.

After 2:01 of futility Shelton scored his first break of the match to even the score 4-4. “You have to hit the line to get by Djokovic and that’s what Shelton is doing,” observed McEnroe. Now we saw young Ben in full flight – and some saw images of young Rafa: muscles glistening, blasting lefty forehand winners, covering the court with explosive speed, never giving up, taking it to Djokovic. Nole, who suddenly was wildly errant, confided that he felt he had fallen into a black hole. Shelton gained a set point but Nole hit a 124 mph service winner. The roar of his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, bounced off Ashe’s rafters. 

In a topsy-turvy set dripping with plot twists, the ever resilient Djokovic took advantage of a loose service game by Shelton and soon had his first match point. But Shelton held strong. Then Nole was undone by his weakest shot – his overhead – and the two players marched to a third-set tiebreak. 

As if to mirror the match itself, the Serb grabbed a commanding 5-1 lead. But Shelton counterattacked and won three straight points, but just couldn’t blast his way through the resilient Serb. And when the Floridian netted a forehand, Nole claimed a 2:40, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(4), victory to book a ticket into his tenth final, a record he shares with the legendary Bill Tilden. Ever the controversial competitor, Novak mocked his foe by duplicating Shelton’s “hang up” phone gesture. Sunday he’ll be seeking perhaps the greatest record in men’s tennis, a 24th Slam.

Here at the Open, the slogan of the tournament has been “Spectacular Awaits.” All year and at the Open, American men have given us spectacular runs. And none were more enchanting than the 20-year-old Shelton’s, with all his appealing athleticism.

Yet for all the fabulous success of America’s great young male players who are climbing higher and higher in the rankings, we are still waiting for one to summit. 

It might be Fritz, Tiafoe, Paul, Eubanks or the new face of American tennis, the dazzling Shelton. After all, as broadcaster Mark Brown said, “He is an absolute show – and he is going to have his day.”

Shelton told Inside Tennis that he felt “American tennis seems to be moving in a great direction, the right direction. We have guys making it deep in Slams. Here, three in the quarterfinals…Coco Gauff in the final, Madison Keys a semifinalist. So it’s a pretty cool time to be an American in tennis.

“I wish I could have a ball that says when and who is going to be the American who is the first guy since Andy Roddick to win a Grand Slam, but unfortunately I don’t have that.”

THE BUZZ

CRIMINAL ADMISSION?When asked about his imitation of Ben Shelton’s phone victory gesture, Djokovic said with a glint in his eye, “I just love Ben’s celebration. I though it was very original and I copied him. I stole his celebration.”

THIS GUY IS PRETTY GOOD: Djokovic is now 26-1 in majors this year and has reached all four Slam finals. The often candid Serb noted that he’s been working hard and said, “I know that I deserve this.” He added that, at 36, this could always be his last Slam. On the other hand he said he would consider retiring if he “got his ass kicked by the young guys in the Grand Slams…in the earlier stages.”

LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1: Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula will become the new co-ranked WTA World No.1 doubles on Monday. 

DOUBLES THREE-PEAT: Two of the four men’s doubles finalists were of Indian heritage – Indian Rohan Boppa and American Rajeev Ram. Ram and Englishman Joe Salisbury won their third straight US Open doubles title. 

UNIFORMS IN THIS TOWN: Buddhist monks in saffron robes walk up Fifth Avenue in their sandals. Construction workers in gritty neon shirts and hard hats guide steel girders. The Emirates flight attendants in their stylized outfits with abundant hints of traditional garb are the pride of hair and makeup. Diminutive juniors toting huge racket bags march out to back courts hoping for glory. Tennis officials still favor blue blazers?

THE WOMAN WHO CANNOT AVOID AWARDS: At this year’s Open we’ve been teasing the fabulous Billie Jean King. She’s the woman who can’t help getting awards. And deservedly so. What other sports figure not named Ali, Jackie or Jordan has so changed the landscape – and she keeps doing so? Opening night at the Open was a love-in for Billie. Thank you, Michelle Obama. The next day was Billie Jean King day in the Borough of Queens. There was a big plaque and plenty of awards. There’s also a Billie Jean poster for the US Open (big eyeglasses, no nose) that’s all over New York. You can’t miss it.

And last night there was a women’s equity program with Venus, Billie Jean, and the CEO of Cadillac. Sixteen Billie Jean King awards were handed out, as was the Billie Jean King Equity Lifetime Achievement award. The prize was awarded to Billie Jean – who else?

SCOUTING REPORT OF THE DAY: Djokovic said Ben Shelton had “amazing pop on serve. He is so dynamic and very unpredictable.”

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