Ben Shelton tops Frances Tiafoe at the US Open for his first Slam semifinal. Novak Djokovic is next
Shelton is the youngest player since Michael Chang to advance to the semifinals
By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Ben Shelton reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at age 20 by edging Frances Tiafoe 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 at the U.S. Open in a back-and-forth contest filled with huge hitting by both on a muggy night.
The matchup, which began in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday evening and ended after midnight on Wednesday, was the first major quarterfinal of the Open era, which dates to 1968, between two African-American men. It was also the first U.S. Open quarterfinal since 2005 between two men from the host country, which hasn’t claimed a Slam trophy in men’s singles since Andy Roddick won at Flushing Meadows two years prior to that.
The crowd seemed to have a tough time deciding for whom to cheer, prodding both players at various points of the often even matchup.
Shelton will face 23-time major champion Novak Djokovic on Friday for a berth in the final.
Djokovic reached his record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, breaking a tie with Roger Federer for the most by a man, by defeating Taylor Fritz 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
As good as Shelton’s serve is — he hit 14 aces to raise his tournament-high total to 76, but also hit 11 double-faults — it was a return that put him in charge in the pivotal third-set tiebreaker against Tiafoe, who was a semifinalist in New York a year ago.
Shelton wasted two set points at 6-4, one by double-faulting, and then double-faulted again to allow Tiafoe to be a point from the set at 7-6.
That’s when Shelton ripped a forehand return winner off an 83 mph second serve to extend the set at 7-all. Tiafoe then netted a forehand, followed by sending a backhand long. Shelton celebrated taking that set by leaning over and pointing to his ear, asking for more noise from the fans, then tapped his chest as he walked to the sideline.
Soon enough, he was breaking to get going in the fourth set. In all, he won seven of Tiafoe’s service games.
Djokovic improved to 13-0 for his career in quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows — and to 8-0 against Fritz, an American who was seeded No. 9.
The match was played with the Arthur Ashe Stadium retractable roof partially shut, which offered shade both for spectators and the two competitors on an afternoon when the temperature topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) and the humidity was above 55%.
On the changeovers, the players sought solace, either by removing a shirt for a bit or wrapping ice-stuffed towels around their necks or pouring water overhead. Both Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia, and Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, had some trouble on the most sweltering day of the tournament so far.
But while Djokovic eventually got his shots straightened out, Fritz’s miscues just kept on coming. By the end, Fritz had 51 unforced errors, nearly twice as many as Djokovic’s 26.
The other key statistic: Djokovic dispensed with 10 of the 12 break points he faced.
There was only one moment when Djokovic appeared rattled, yelling and pumping his fists while looking into the stands on successive points.
One particular spectator called out during a point, a no-no in tennis.
“He was actually in the box where some of my friends were. I don’t know who the guy was but, yeah, I was pretty annoyed by him at that point,” Djokovic said. “I was communicating with my friends to have a little chat with him.”
Both Shelton and Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland, wore sleeveless muscle shirts — Shelton’s mostly black with fuchsia down the left side; Tiafoe’s green with a multi-colored mix of colors on the front that Coco Gauff described as “confetti.”
Both were soaked by sweat throughout, because although the temperature had slid from the 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) of the afternoon to about 82 F (28 C) by nighttime, the humidity rose to 70%.
Both hit the ball hard. So hard. But Shelton was the one drawing “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the crowd with his every-bit-of-strength lefty forehands that topped 100 mph and serves that zoomed even faster. An ace at 138 mph -- he reached 149 mph twice in a fourth-round win against another American, No. 14 Tommy Paul-- generated a loud reaction from spectators, as well as a “Yeah!” from the excitable Shelton himself.
It was Tiafoe, the one with a tad more experience on this stage, whose game was littered with mistakes early. A double-fault here, a flubbed over-the-shoulder volley that bounced way in front of the net there.
When Tiafoe pushed a forehand long to cede the match’s first break, Shelton yelled and looked over at his guest box, where his father -- former pro Bryan, who coached Ben in college at Florida and now on tour -- jumped to his feet.
A 127 mph service winner off Shelton’s racket ended the first set, and he again stared at his box and held the pose for a few seconds.
AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis
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