Ben Shelton has arrived, and he announced it by beating one of the best American tennis players in the world.
The 20-year-old American, who turned pro just 13 months ago and is playing in only his second US Open, beat Frances Tiafoe 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-2 in the quarterfinals Tuesday night. It was a rare match, not just because it was American versus American in a Grand Slam quarterfinal, but because it was also a match between two Black players. By the end of it, Shelton became the youngest American man to reach the US Open semifinals since Michael Chang in 1992.
Shelton, the 2022 NCAA men’s singles champion, came out strong against Tiafoe, challenging the 25-year-old to return not just his sizzling forehands, but also his enormous serves. Tiafoe isn’t usually a slow starter, but it appeared he was caught flat-footed by Shelton’s energy and emphasis.
Tiafoe then bounced back strongly to take the second set. By the third set, both players were showing off their best tennis. Knotted at six games each, it went to a tiebreak. And then came the most pivotal moment of the match. It’s not often you can pinpoint a single moment in a tennis match and say that it changed everything, but this one truly did. Shelton, facing set point from Tiafoe and the possibility that he could lose the third set, smashed a forehand return that utterly wowed everyone.
The speed. The quickness. The confidence. The ice flowing through his veins to risk essentially the entire match on such a daring shot. But he did it, and it worked. He saved set point and won the tiebreak. From that point on, Tiafoe looked deflated, and he played like it. He won just two games in the fourth and final set. After the match, he gave Shelton credit for hitting the shot that led to such a momentum change.
When Shelton finished off Tiafoe in the fourth set and won the match, you could practically feel the energy of this 20-year-old coming through the screen. He picked up an imaginary phone and slammed it down again. Why? “I’m dialed in,” Shelton said at the post-match presser.
It was an unexpected performance from Shelton. Not because he doesn’t have the ability, but because he has seldom been able to harness all of his skills and put them together in one stunning match. He made it all the way to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open back in January, but on the clay and grass courts over the spring and summer, he had major trouble.
Shelton winning is a consequential result. For the first time in his young career, he’ll move into the top 20 (he’s currently ranked No. 47). Tiafoe, who fought so hard over the past 18 months to make it into the top ten, will drop out of it with this loss.
So who will Shelton be facing in the semifinals? None other than Novak Djokovic.
Shelton knows what he’s up against. But you couldn’t wipe that smile from his face if you tried. Facing one of the most accomplished tennis players of all time is all part of living the dream.