As the ATP tour neared the halfway point of its 2023 season, the year had been largely defined by what had not occurred. It had been clear for a long time, as they tore through the opposition, that Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz were the best players in the world. Yet the two best players had also, somehow, not faced each other in more than a year.
Things can change so quickly in tennis. In a few short months, this rivalry has come to define the entire men’s season. The important question before the US Open men’s singles semi-finals on Friday is whether either of the remaining challengers can stop Djokovic and Alcaraz from meeting again.
The dominance shared by Djokovic and Alcaraz this year is actually reflected in the third-ranked player. Daniil Medvedev has performed extremely well in his own right, ridding himself of his tough form early in the year with an incredible run in the spring. He has now reached consecutive grand slam semi-finals and in the live rankings, Medvedev (6,800) is closer in points to Alcaraz (8,535) than he is to the No 4 player, Holger Rune (4,710).
Yet, on Friday against Alcaraz, he will be the massive underdog. He is very aware of it. After rating his play throughout the tournament so far as 10/10, Medvedev was asked what level it would take to beat Alcaraz. His response? 11/10.
“I would say what makes him that difficult is just that he has every shot. He has extra power to other players,” said Medvedev. “So it’s true many players probably I would [beat] with 97%, it’s tough for them to hit the ball through me, like I’m always there, always running, always trying to get it back. He can do it just because he has this power; we see 100-mile forehand winner and stuff like this. Some players, even if we try, we cannot do it.”
While Alcaraz is a better player, Medvedev also has a clear match-up issue. The two times they met this year, Alcaraz dismantled the Russian without dropping a set.
In those matches, Alcaraz showed that he has everything he could possibly want to break down Medvedev’s style. Medvedev’s keenness to stand so far back while returning serve is just an invitation for Alcaraz to exploit the massive space and angles he opens up by serve and volleying, moving to the net, and with his trademark drop shots.
For Medvedev, an 11/10 performance will mean, surely, one of the best of his life. “I need to serve on the line if I need to,” he said. “ I need to put my shots on the line. I need to be there 100% of the time and be better.”
And then there is Ben Shelton. In contrast to the more successful and established Medvedev, the unseeded American is a far more uncertain factor. Tuesday’s four-set win over Frances Tiafoe was an incredible occasion, two black male players battling in the deep end of a grand slam, bringing tennis to new audiences. With his charisma and entertaining shotmaking, it is obvious that Shelton will be extremely popular if his progress continues.
Once they got down to business, Shelton largely played a brilliant match, serving his lefty bombs, producing some bold, destructive shotmaking and pairing it with variety and his athleticism.
But the middle of the match underlined Shelton’s inexperience, which a seasoned player such as Tiafoe should have taken advantage of. For all of his big weapons, the 20-year-old is still learning how to play with the point-by-point intensity required at the top level, without making any rash decisions or losing focus.
On Friday, Shelton will face a player who interrogates and exploits his opponents’ inconsistencies and weaknesses like no other in history. Any drop in intensity, poor service games in a set or inopportune double faults will be punished.
The benefit of being young, though, is fearlessness. Unlike the generations before him, Shelton is not yet damaged by the crushing, inevitable experience of being dusted aside by Djokovic time and time again. He will have the benefit of returning to Arthur Ashe Stadium with the hope of swinging freely and seeing where his game matches up to the very best.