Ben Shelton ‘dialed in’ during historic run to US Open semifinals
He’s a step closer to ending America’s 20-year Grand Slam drought via talent, success and strong beliefs
NEW YORK — With his historic win in the US Open quarterfinals complete, Ben Shelton stood near center court soaking in the applause of an adoring crowd. Then he mimicked answering a phone call with his left hand, mouthing a few words in a brief fake convo before emphatically hanging up.
“For me,” Shelton said after his match, “it’s kind of like saying I’m dialed in.”
On a night where Shelton and Frances Tiafoe strolled onto the court of Arthur Ashe Stadium to the sounds of the rap anthem “We Dem Boyz” for the first US Open quarterfinal match between two Black American male players, it was Shelton, the relative newcomer to the tour, who showed he was “that dude” with an exciting four-set win to set up Friday’s semifinal against No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic.
Shelton, the 20-year-old who turned pro a year ago, is the youngest American to reach the semifinals of the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2003. That’s incredible accomplishment for a player who, before this week, had never played a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium (his first match, Aug. 28, was on court 10).
The sudden emergence of Shelton, along with the play this past year of Tiafoe (who fell short of reaching his second consecutive US Open semifinal) shows that American men’s tennis, with the solid play of African American men, might be a step closer to ending a Grand Slam drought that’s lasted 20 years.
“It’s pretty cool to be a part of it,” Shelton said of the rise of American tennis that also includes Chris Eubanks, who also broke through this year with a deep run at Wimbledon, where he reached the quarterfinals. “I love to see American tennis going in a great direction and tennis, in general, going in a great direction.”
And Shelton seems to have positioned himself into a prominent role in that movement, which is incredible considering many of the fans who cheered him in victory on Tuesday may not have known who he was before this tournament started. That’s mainly because of the route he’s taken to get here: Shelton played two years of tennis at the University of Florida (where he was coached by his father, Bryan Shelton, a former tour player) before turning pro after beating world No. 5 Casper Ruud in the second round of the 2022 Cincinnati Masters in August 2022.
What makes Shelton special?
His talent: He has a tournament-best 149 mph serve at this year’s US Open and notched several 139 mph aces against Tiafoe on Tuesday.
His taste of success: He was a member of the Florida team that won the NCAA championship in 2021 and followed that with the NCAA singles championship the following year. It doesn’t hurt that his father is the only college coach to win national titles in both men’s and women’s tennis.
His strong belief in himself: During a sit-down discussion several months ago with Tiafoe and Eubanks set up by the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, Shelton made some pretty audacious comments about what he expected from his career:
“I want to be that dude in the draw where there’s not one player who wants to see me … I’m talking scared of me.”
“I want to be one of those guys where you’re scared of the animal they are.”
“I want to be able to say something on a big stage one day, and it really carries some weight.”
“I have full belief in myself that I can win Grand Slams. That I can be No. 1 in the world.”
Those comments were applauded by Tiafoe, 25, the current No. 10 player in the world who made his ATP Tour main draw debut at the age of 16.
“When I was 20,” Tiafoe told him during that conversation, “I ran away from that.”
Tiafoe couldn’t run away from Shelton or the weather on Tuesday, dropping the first set on a muggy night where he changed shirts on practically every changeover. Tiafoe won the second set easily, setting up a pivotal third set where the vet couldn’t capitalize on Shelton’s mistakes, which resulted in 11 double faults for the night.
Two of those double faults came when Shelton was up 6-5 in the third-set tiebreaker, giving Tiafoe a chance to serve for the set. But Shelton delivered a powerful return of an 83 mph second serve from Tiafoe, leaving “Big ‘Foe” frozen in his tracks.
“Sometimes,” Shelton said of that return, “you’ve got to shut off the brain, close your eyes and just swing.”
Shelton went on to win the tiebreaker, the next set and the match against an obviously flustered — and fatigued — Tiafoe.
“I just wanted to win and play well,” Tiafoe said. “That didn’t happen, so I’m just frustrated.”
Yet even in frustration, the significance of the night, which was the first match between two Black American men at a US Open quarterfinal since the Open era began in 1968, wasn’t lost on him.
“It’s great with two people of color going at it,” Tiafoe said. “Obviously, a historical moment.”
And a career moment for Shelton, who will face tremendous odds Friday as he tries to answer the call against the player with 23 wins in Slams.
“It’s an advantage with my game style playing someone who’s never played me before,” Shelton said. “I’m definitely going to try to bring some things to the table that are different and hopefully disruptive on Friday.”