There was a time when a U.S. Open quarterfinal match 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 tournament would always be for the country that has won the Davis Cup, the team event contested by several nations, more than any other. But it wasn’t that way, not for 18 years, and then on Tuesday night, 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 top-60 tour pro 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 tour’s most popular players, 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, the powerful lefty whose serves, at nearly 150 miles per hour, and 112 m.p.h. forehands 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, sweaty and breezeless night at Arthur Ashe Stadium that seemed to get hotter as it wore on, Tiafoe and Shelton put on the sort of tight, nervy show that stretched past midnight and 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 a 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.
But then Tiafoe reverted to form, resisting playing the match like a testosterone-fueled hitting contest. He grinded out points and games and let Shelton cool off and tighten up, as younger players 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 taking 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 forehand return blasted onto the line inches from the corner. Tiafoe barely moved for it.
“Sometimes you just have to shut off the brain, close your eyes and just swing,” Shelton said.
Two errors later, Shelton had the set and, for all intents and purposes, the match, breaking Tiafoe’s serve in the first game of the fourth set and never looking back.
“Left it all out there tonight,” Shelton said. “Emotional battle.”
Next up is Novak Djokovic, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, in the semifinals on Friday.
“Doesn’t get any better than that,” Shelton said.
Maybe it will.