Every time 20-year-old Floridian thunderbolt Ben Shelton took the court at this year’s US Open, he put on one of the tournament’s greatest performances.
He was once again a racket-swinging highlight reel in Friday afternoon’s semifinals, the kind of tennis every American fan pays homage to the spirit of “Big” Bill Tilton, or the kind of tennis that led Sheldon to continue. Football as he became a teenager.
That second serve was 143 miles per hour, and the kid was tearing across the court with a fearsome forehand. His athleticism to turn solid lobs into fearless, rocking overhands floats back. Those arms fluttering out of his sleeveless shirt, and so does the spirit, as he shouts, “Yes!” Like a kid on the playground every time he scores a big point. On drop volleys that touch lands and spins back toward the net.
Unfortunately for Sheldon, the scoring system in tennis does not award any style points, and in Novak Djokovic he faced not only the 23-time Grand Slam winner and the greatest player of the modern era but also the ultimate coach of tennis tai chi. For years, even more so than his recent dominance, the 36-year-old Djokovic has turned the power and style of flashier and more powerful challengers against them.
Djokovic did the same on Friday. Playing in a record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic implemented Sheldon’s tactical rebuild that crushed the dreams and good vibes and flash that so many younger players had come to him before. Djokovic didn’t use an ounce more energy than he had, taking the teenager apart 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) in two-and-a-half hours.
For most of the afternoon, he caught Sheldon’s trap shots from the back of the court like a cheetah chasing his lunch, and took missiles at Sheldon’s serve like catching butterflies in a field in late summer. After Shelton finished hitting a forehand into the net, Djokovic also stole Shelton’s much-talked-about post-match celebration — miming a phone to his ear. Then slam it down before giving the young man an icy handshake.
Sheldon later saw Djokovic’s mimic on video after he left the court. He doesn’t care too much about telling people how to celebrate, he said.
“I think if you win the competition, you deserve to do whatever you want,” Shelton said. “As a child growing up, I’ve always learned that imitation is the truest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”
Speaking about the celebration after Sheldon, Djokovic said with a wry smile, “I love Ben’s celebration. I thought it was so original that I copied him.
Now understand, Djokovic appreciates a flash of tennis highlights as much as anyone. Taking the court for the third set with an almost insurmountable – against him – two-set lead, he swung as hard as he could and saw Sheldon’s feather a drop volley. Djokovic gave the Rockets a well-deserved round of applause. Nice game, young man. Moments later, he stepped onto the court and rolled a passing shot to break Sheldon’s serve and enthusiasm once again.
Djokovic did all this in front of a crowd of nearly 24,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium. With thunderstorms in the area, the roof was closed, and every time Sheldon put together a display of power and touch, speed and athleticism, you could almost feel the roar. and touch.
That was never truer than when Sheldon trailed 2-4 in the third set and desperately tried to extend the match. He found himself with a point to break Djokovic’s serve and didn’t disappoint, pulling Djokovic into a wide forehand that produced a brain-wrenching sound. Two games later, in Djokovic’s only error-strewn and poor-serve slump of the day (it happens), he held a break point and all the good vibes.
Then again, Djokovic capped the moment with his trademark performance — a 124 mp.h. Serve more than Sheldon can handle. Order was restored.
There was a little more Sheldon and Djokovic for the packed stadium to enjoy. Sheldon saved a match point to send the third set to a tiebreaker, then stumbled a bit as he went down 5-1. But Djokovic had things to do and his 36th Grand Slam final was right up his alley. Sheldon hit that forehand into the net, and it was Djokovic’s turn to drown out the noise — and hang up the phone.