Ben Shelton Beats Frances Tiafoe to Advance to U.S. Open Semifinal

There was a time when a U.S. Open quarterfinal between two big-hitting American men could just be referred to as “tennis” rather than a historic night for the sport in this country.

This is the way the home Grand Slam would always be for the country that has won the Davis Cup, the sport’s national competition, more than any other. But it wasn’t that way, not for 18 years, Tuesday night, and then Tuesday night when two young Black men, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton made it so 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 tour pro once ranked 55th in the world who became a highly regarded college coach. During the last year they have become brothers of a sort, Tiafoe, the 25-year-old veteran who has become one of the most popular players on the tour guiding the 20-year-old Shelton, who didn’t have a passport a year ago, through his first season as a professional.

“Great guy off the court, but on the court a nightmare to deal with,” Shelton said of Tiafoe over the weekend.

Shelton serving to Tiafoe on Tuesday.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Shelton, the powerful lefty whose nearly 150 m.p.h. serves have become the buzz of the tournament, was right about that.

“Ben has wanted to play me at the Open for a long time,” Tiafoe had said in discussing his game plan. “Make him play a lot of balls, just try to make it a really tough night for him.”

On a thick and sweaty, breezeless night at Arthur Ashe Stadium that felt like it got like it got hotter as the night wore on, Tiafoe and Shelton put on the sort of tight, nervy show that stretched past midnight into Wednesday morning. The U.S. Open is known for its late night spectacles, storied battles that only so many can stick with until the end. It wasn’t that way Tuesday and into Wednesday, as the stadium stayed loud and live and Shelton and Tiafoe traded punches and counterpunches from start to finish.

When it was over Shelton had prevailed, 6-2. 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.

Shelton struck early, playing the first set like the loose, midcareer pro who had done this before, his arm whipping serves and forehands as Tiafoe appeared tight and sloppy, giving up two service breaks and doing much of Shelton’s work for him.

Tiafoe reaching for a shot during his match with Shelton.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

But then Tiafoe reverted to form, resisting playing the match like a testosterone-fueled hitting contest. He grinding out points and let Shelton cool off and tighten up as younger players so often do to draw even.

The match turned on a crucial third-set tiebreaker, a seesaw battle that Shelton was on the verge of cruising through before hitting two consecutive double faults. Suddenly Tiafoe, who had given up control of the set a few games before, was on the precipice once more.

Barring an injury or some other calamity, Shelton is likely to have plenty of moments like the one that happened next, with Tiafoe a point away from a two-sets-to-one lead.

There is a specific sound that comes off Shelton’s racket when he lays into a serve or a stroke like only he and Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, can these days. It’s nothing like the familiar thwop of strings hitting a felt ball, but more like a sledgehammer nailing a spike into a railroad tie. Tiafoe’s serve was plenty good. Shelton’s return blasted onto the line inches from the corner. Tiafoe barely moved for it. Two errors later, Shelton had the set and for all intent and purposes, the match, breaking Tiafoe’s serve in the first game of the fourth set and never looking back.

Shelton returning a shot against Tiafoe.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

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