There was a time when a US Open quarterfinal match between two hard-hitting American men might be referred to as “tennis,” not a historic night for the sport in this country.
This is how the domestic Grand Slam tournament will always be for the country that has won the Davis Cup, the team event contested by several countries, more than any other. But it wasn’t that way, not for 18 years, and then on Tuesday night, two young black men, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, did it again.
They came to it from different places: Tiafoe, the son of a maintenance man at a tennis center in suburban Maryland; Shelton, the son of a former top 60 tour pro who became a highly regarded college coach. Over the past year, they have become brothers of sorts, Tiafoe, the 25-year-old veteran who has become one of the most popular players on the tour, guiding the 20-year-old Shilton, who did not have a passport a year ago, through his first season as a professional. .
“Great guy off the field, but on the field he’s a nightmare to deal with,” Shilton said of Tiafoe over the weekend.
Shilton, a powerful left-hander whose nearly 150mph serves and 112mph forehands became the sensation of the tournament, and rightly so.
“Ben has wanted to play the Open with me for a long time,” Tiafoe said while discussing his game plan. “Make him play a lot of balls, just try to make it a very difficult night for him.”
On a dense, sweaty, quiet night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which seemed to get hotter by the minute, Tiafoe and Shelton put on the kind of nervous, tight show that stretched past midnight and into Wednesday morning. The US Open is known for its late-night shows, historic fights that only a few people can see through to the end. It wasn’t that way from Tuesday through Wednesday, as the field remained loud and live and Shelton and Tiafoe traded punches and counter-punches from start to finish.
At the end of the match, Shelton won 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.
Shilton struck early, playing the first set like a loose mid-career professional had done it before, hitting his arm and forehand while Tiafoe looked tight and sloppy, giving up two service breaks and doing much of Shilton’s work for him.
But then Tiafoe returned to form, resisting playing the match like a testosterone-fueled batting contest. He took the points and the games and allowed Shilton to calm down and tighten up, as younger players often do, to equalise.
The match turned into a decisive tiebreaker in the third set, a see-saw battle that Shelton was on the verge of overcoming before committing two consecutive double faults. Suddenly, Tiafoe, who had relinquished control of the group several games earlier, was on the brink again.
Barring injury or some other disaster, Shilton is likely to have plenty of moments like the one that happened next, with Tiafoe one point away from taking a two sets to one lead.
There’s a specific sound that comes out of Shelton’s racket when he hits a serve or a shot like he and Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, do these days. It’s not like the familiar strings hitting a felt ball, but more like a sledgehammer driving a nail into a railroad tie. Tiafoe’s serves were very good. Shelton’s forward return exploded onto the line inches from the corner. Tiafoe barely moved for it.
“Sometimes you just have to shut your mind off, close your eyes, and just swing,” Shelton said.
After two errors, Shelton took the set and, for all intents and purposes, the match, breaking Tiafoe in the first game of the fourth set and never looked back.
“I left everything out there tonight,” Shelton said. “Emotional battle.”
He will meet Novak Djokovic, winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, in the semi-finals on Friday.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Shelton said.
Maybe you will.
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