US Open sensation Ben Shelton is proving to be the master of the big opportunity to send Novak Djokovic through to the semifinals

Ben Shelton celebrates a point in his US Open quarterfinals match with Frances Tiafoe - US Open sensation Ben Shelton proves himself master of the big occasion, denying Novak Djokovic the semifinals

Ben Shelton meets Novak Djokovic in Friday’s semifinals after the American advanced to the quarterfinals of the US Open – Reuters/Mike Segar

American tennis’s new darling, 20-year-old Ben Shelton, will play in the semifinals of the US Open after eliminating his compatriot Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday night.

After 19 years Coco Gauff reached the women’s semifinals Earlier in the day, these US Opens are becoming increasingly popular a very encouraging tournament for the next generation of Americans. Together they are doing their utmost to fill the void left by Serena Williams’ retirement last year.

While Gauff came to New York as one of the favorites here, Shelton was a clear underdog. Since a striking breakthrough at the Australian Open in Januarywhere he reached the quarterfinals in only his second major event, he had endured such a losing streak that he only won seven of his next 25 Main Tour games.

But there has to be something about the big stadiums that ignites its fire. Shelton netted exactly 50 clean winners in his 6-2, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 win over Tiafoe, who responded with an inconsistent, poor performance. As a result, Shelton’s win-loss record in the majors this year is now 9-1, compared to 8-20 in other Tour events.

After the players shared the first two sets of this quarterfinal, the outcome was likely always dependent on the third. Here was a bizarre and inexplicable passage of play that at times included six breaks of serve in eight games and also saw Shelton waste a set point in the tie-break when he made consecutive double faults.

At this point, Shelton’s missed serves seemed like a failure of nerves. But he redeemed himself immediately when he scored the shot of the evening (see below) right at the next point: a tremendous forehand return of serve that set up a clean winner. Two points later, he had completed the third set, and Tiafoe quickly failed in the fourth set to end the contest.

During his on-court interview – which happened to be conducted by Gauff’s new coach Brad Gilbert – Shelton opened up about that crucial return of serve. As he put it, “Sometimes you just have to turn off your brain, close your eyes and just swing.” Maybe there was a little bit of that at Setpoint. You could call it a clutch, but I don’t know. It just worked.”

Shelton has tennis in the family. His father – former world No. 55 Bryan Shelton – is his coach and offers quiet wisdom from the player’s box. His mother was also a senior junior, while his sister also competed at the college level.

As a kid, Shelton wanted to be an NFL quarterback, and his powerful throwing arm has allowed him to crank the speed gun to an amazing 149 mph – the highest in the tournament. He’s an electric mover whose left-handedness is an added advantage, although most pundits would expect him to prove too rough to take on Novak Djokovic – a man he’s never faced before – in Friday’s semifinals to defeat.

“You know how rock solid the guy is [Djokovic] and how strong it is mentally and physically,” said Shelton, who became the youngest American to reach the semifinals of the US Open since Michael Chang in 1992.

“I also think it’s beneficial for my playing style to play against someone who has never played against me before. I think I can bring some things to the table that you might not see in a normal game that you play on the ATP Tour.”

Shelton’s win – which took just over three hours to complete – was all the more impressive given the oppressive humidity that has left many players with cramps over the past few days.

“Tonight was a real physical fight,” Shelton said after the game. “It was pretty muggy, pretty hot. I think we were both pretty tired 75 percent of the game trying to catch our breath.

“At the end of the third set I really had to dig deep into my pockets. I had a set point of 6-5, walked to the finish line with heavy legs and ended up with two double faults in a row. I got a bit lucky with the slap shot to regain control of the breaker.”

Shelton’s “imaginary phone” celebration explained

Shelton’s match ended just before 1 a.m. and he was at a press conference about an hour later. In the last question, he was asked about his unusual solemn gesture. He had pretended to hold an imaginary phone to his ear and then hung up dramatically – a move that showed surprising knowledge of old-fashioned landline technology.

“Growing up in Atlanta, our home phone was like that,” Shelton explained. “If I wanted to talk to my friends or call them at home to see if they wanted to go outside and throw a football, then that’s what I did.

“But for me it’s like saying I’m dialed in. The first time I really saw it was that I’m very close friends with a lot of the track and field athletes who train at the University of Florida I live in Gainesville. One of them in particular is Grant Holloway who I think has won the world championship three times in a row now, that’s his trademark. He loves to do that when he wins, and many other athletes on the team have since started doing it too.

“He just won the World Cup so congratulations to him. Give him a little salute when I do that. Something that connects me with my friends back home.”

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