After dispatching with upstart Ben Shelton to advance to his 10th US Open final, Novak Djokovic glowered at the Arthur Ashe crowd as he pantomimed himself answering an imaginary phone and slamming down the receiver. There was no question the cold call was meant for the American, who turned off many observers by celebrating his semi-final victory over compatriot Frances Tiafoe in similar fashion. The Serb was also chilly to Shelton when they met at net for the customary post-match handshake.
But in his post-match news conference Shelton – to his immense credit – didn’t answer the immediate call to hit back. “I didn’t see it until after the match,” Shelton said of Djokovic’s riposte. “I don’t like when I’m on social media and I see people telling me how I can celebrate or can’t celebrate. I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want.”
The unseeded underdog was not the popular choice to make it out of this semi-final against Djokovic. His first ever meeting against the Serb – a 3-6, 2-6, 6-7 loss – went about as expected, with Djokovic only needing a few games to adjust to Shelton kitchen-sink tactics. Djokovic backed way off the baseline to better absorb Shelton’s serve and resorted to other judo moves to redirect the brawny American’s powerful groundstrokes. The net effect for Shelton was 3 of 8 serve-volley points won and 50 total errors against 30 winners as he fumbled for cracks to hit through Djokovic. In the sixth game of the match alone, Shelton committed four errors on the way to conceding the first of five break points. Djokovic had the first set wrapped up in 34 minutes. “He’s a guy who can compete at the highest level,” Shelton said of the 23-time slam champion. “[He] has a similar mentality to me on the court with how he wants to come after you and be aggressive and show his emotion.”
Still, that’s not to say that the University of Florida product looked like he should’ve been back in college. Ironically, his brightest moments didn’t come when he was overpowering Djokovic. They came when Shelton was sending back loopy knuckleballs that drew his second-seeded opponent into the middle of the court and baiting him into overhead mistakes. But in the end the temptation to go big was too great, and Shelton fired a 143mph serve to hang in the third set after getting broken at the start. Three errors from Djokovic in the eighth game was just the opening Shelton needed to level the set – and then he consolidated the break in the next game with a 145mph ace, one of five on the night. “Obviously, I knew that he’s got a lot of power,” recalled Djokovic, who matched Shelton ace for ace. “He has an amazing pop on the serve, he’s just so dynamic and very unpredictable. I just had to stay there mentally, present, calm and focus on the game plan … and kind of make him play uncomfortable.”
Shelton had another golden opportunity to break while leading 5-4 in the third – a set that saw Djokovic commit three more errors, two of them unforced, to gift Shelton a set point. And though the Serb eventually turned him away, Shelton kept swinging for the fences, denying Djokovic match point at 5-6 in the third to force a tiebreak. When Djokovic zoomed to a 5-1 lead, Shelton took advantage of three more Djokovic errors in his service games. (“This is when I need y’all,” Shelton yelled up to his team, as the crowd chanted for him. “Let’s go.”) When the supporters in Djokovic’s box stood up to applaud him as he prepared to serve out the match with a 6-4 lead, the second match point on his racquet, Shelton fought valiantly through an 11-stroke baseline rally before dumping a final forehand into the net.
Though the match officially goes down as a loss for Shelton, he achieved his goal of becoming an exasperating opponent. Djokovic’s frustration wasn’t just manifest in his emphatic post-match disconnection. His on-court interview was unusually terse. He seemed annoyed with the crowd for favoring their fellow countryman and did not mention Shelton by name, unusual for a champion who is generally quite magnanimous. “I knew prior to quarter-finals and semi-finals I was going to play an American player, obviously, never easy,” said Djokovic, moving quickly on to flatter Carlos Alcaraz – the young Spaniard he assumed he’d be facing in yet another slam final. (Instead, it’s 2021 nemesis Daniil Medvedev.) “What he has achieved for only 20 years of age is incredible. It’s fantastic. He’s an amazing player. Great for our sport.” It’s just the sort of get-off-my-lawn energy you’d expect from the oldest US Open semi finalist since Jimmy Connors.
Djokovic, one step closer to becoming the oldest ever US Open winner at age 36, could’ve just as easily been as complimentary of Shelton – you know, the 20-year-old who just reached the final four of his sixth ever grand slam after being on tour for barely a year. When the new rankings come out following the tournament, he’ll be sitting pretty inside the top 20. It’s too impressive a come-up for Shelton to get hung up on his vanquisher’s phony insults. “You know, as a kid growing up, I always learned that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Shelton smirked, “so that’s all I have to say about that.”