In a historic U.S. Open for American men, it is a 20-year-old who is the last one standing. Three Americans advanced to the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows in 2023, and now it is Ben Shelton who is through to the semis. There was always going to be at least one man from the host nation still alive at the end of Tuesday, as the second quarterfinal clash in the bottom half of the draw featured Shelton going up against Frances Tiafoe. After Taylor Fritz lost to Novak Djokovic during the afternoon session, Shelton vs. Tiafoe became a battle to be the last American left in the tournament.
Following an absolutely wild third set that proved to be the decisive turning point in the match, Shelton pulled off a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-2 upset in three hours and seven minutes.
After the two compatriots split the first two sets, the third consisted of six service breaks–an especially alarming number given that Shelton is a huge server who generally holds convincingly and struggles to break. The world No. 47 went down by a break, eventually went up a break, gave that break back, and then finally found himself in a tiebreaker. It was a similarly bizarre ‘breaker, too. Tiafoe saved one set point on his own serve at 4-6 before Shelton proceeded to double-fault twice in a row with the set on his racket. That suddenly gave Tiafoe a chance to close it out, but Shelton came up with the shot of the match down set point–a scorching forehand return winner just inside the sideline and baseline. The 2022 NCAA singles champion finally took the set two points later.
Shelton then cruised through the fourth, becoming the youngest American man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Michael Chang in 1992.
This meeting marked the first all-American men’s singles quarterfinal in New York since the famous Andre Agassi vs. James Blake five-set thriller in 2005. Played in legendary Arthur Ashe Stadium, of course, it was also the first-ever U.S. Open quarterfinal between two black American men.
2005 was the last time three American men reached the quarters at Flushing Meadows, where Robby Ginepri joined Agassi and Blake 18 years ago. Two advanced to the semis back then, as Agassi followed up his win over Blake by beating Ginepri in five sets (Agassi eventually lost to Roger Federer in the final). This 2023 American contingent could not duplicate that semifinal duo, however, as Fritz was no match for Djokovic in a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 loss earlier on Tuesday.
Now it is Djokovic, a 23-time Grand Slam champion who will regain the world No. 1 ranking next Monday, who stands in Shelton’s way of becoming the first American men’s finalist since Andy Roddick in 2006.
With that ultimate challenge looming, Shelton–as his recurring victory celebration suggests–remains “dialed in.” Only after the tournament will he reflect on what he is accomplishing.
“It’s pretty cool for me to be a part of it; I love to see American tennis going in a great direction, and tennis in general going in a great direction,” said the world No. 47, who will be no worse than 19th in next week’s rankings. “It’s weird, but I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of blocking out everything that’s going on around me when I need to, and I’ve stayed in the moment and focused on the tennis. It’s like when that point is playing, I don’t hear anything; I don’t see anything. I’m just practicing in a park. So that’s kind of been surprising to me how calm I’ve been able to stay; just stay in the moment.
“I think that when the tournament is finally over and everything is said and done, I’ll have to take a step back and look at everything that happened.”