Every time Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old Florida player, took the court at this year’s US Open, he delivered one of the greatest performances of the tournament.
He was a highlight reel again Friday afternoon in the semifinals, playing the kind of tennis that could make every American fan applaud the spirit of “The Big One” Bill Tilden or whatever magical force led Shelton to pursue tennis instead. Football when he became a teenager.
That 143 mph second serve, the fearsome forehand that the kid tore across the court. He showed athleticism as he floated back to turn hard strikes into gritty swinging strikes. Those undulating arms of his sleeveless shirt, and the soul, too, in the way he shouted an impulsive “Yes!” Like a kid on the playground every time he grabs a big point. Which touches dropped volleys, which land and spin back towards the net.
Unfortunately for Shelton, the scoring system in tennis offers no style points, and in Novak Djokovic he faced not only a 23-time Grand Slam winner and the greatest player of the modern era, but the ultimate practitioner of tennis tai chi. For years, and never more so than in his latest stretch of dominance, the 36-year-old Djokovic has been turning the power and style of more flashy and powerful opponents against them.
And that’s exactly what Djokovic did on Friday. Playing in his 47th Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic executed the kind of tactical dismantling of Shilton that crushed the dreams, good feelings and flash that so many young players had brought before him. Without using any more energy than he had to, Djokovic beat the young man with sculpted arms 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), in just over two and a half hours.
For most of the afternoon, he would follow Shelton’s shots from the back of the court like a cheetah stalking its lunch, firing missiles at Shelton’s serve as if he were catching butterflies in a field on a late summer afternoon. When Shilton ended up hitting a forehand into the net, Djokovic stole Shilton’s much-talked-about post-match celebration – miming the phone to his ear Then slam it before giving the young man an icy handshake.
Shelton later watched Djokovic’s imitation on video after he left the court. He said he doesn’t care much about people telling him how to celebrate.
“I think if you win the game, you deserve to do whatever you want,” Shelton said. “As a child, I was always taught that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”
“I just love Ben’s celebration,” Djokovic, who spoke about the celebration after Shelton, said with a wry smile. I thought it was very original, and I copied it.
Understand now that Djokovic appreciates the glamorous highlights of tennis as much as anyone. Taking the court for the third set holding an almost insurmountable two-set lead against him, he swung as hard as he could and watched Shelton hit a volley. Djokovic gave the moment he clapped the racket he deserved. Nice play, young man. Minutes later he took to the court and fired a passing shot to break Shilton’s serve and get him going again.
Djokovic did it all in front of a crowd of nearly 24,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium braced for a high-octane brawl. With thunderstorms in the area, the roof was closed, and every time Shelton put together one of his displays of power, touch, speed and athleticism and came up with that point, the roaring explosion was something that felt like you could reach out and touch it.
And that was never truer than when Shelton trailed 4-2 in the third set and desperately tried to extend the match. He found himself with a break point on Djokovic’s serve and he did not disappoint, directing Djokovic into a wide forehand that produced a stunning sound. Two games later, in Djokovic’s only lull of errors and poor serves of the day (that’s what happened), he got a break point and all the good vibes.
Once again, Djokovic throttled the moment with his trademark efficiency – 124mph. Serves on a scale that Shelton couldn’t handle. The system has been restored.
There was still more for Shelton and Djokovic to enjoy the packed court. Shelton saved a match point and sent the third set to a tiebreaker, then stumbled a bit when down 5-1. But Djokovic had things to do and a niche in his 36th Grand Slam final. Shelton smashed that forehand into the net and it was Djokovic’s turn to enjoy the noise – and hang up the phone.
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