WHAT HAPPENED: Novak Djokovic moved one step closer to a record-setting 24 major titles, turning back the valiant, surprise semifinalist, unseeded 20-year-old American Ben Shelton, on Friday afternoon, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(4). The 36-year-old Djokovic advanced to his 10th US Open final, where he will meet the winner of the other semifinal between No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and No. 3 Daniil Medvedev.
The lefty Shelton, playing in just his fifth major, boasts a massive, crowd-friendly game. He had cracked serves at 149 mph en route to his first career major semifinal—and he smacks his forehand seemingly almost as hard. Shelton’s game plan was to overpower and unsettle the vastly more experienced and accomplished Serb.
Although the young American put up a stiff challenge in the final set, and Djokovic was uncharacteristically wobbly at key moments, ultimately Shelton was outmatched.
Like a bomb specialist, Djokovic defused the potent weaponry of the upstart American with patience and precision. Shelton’s powerful groundstrokes and serve took away enough of the Serb’s customary rhythm to prevent Djokovic from performing a clinical dissection in Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Djokovic was able to settle in well enough and pick his moments, especially on big points, as he did in the final-set tiebreak.
The Serb broke serve early in each set, preventing the American from gaining a toehold and priming a home crowd, poised to erupt at any signs of an upset.
But midway through the final set, Shelton was able to rev up the crowd with some spectacular lefty shotmaking, especially when he pounced on short balls and aggressively rushed the net and rushed Djokovic into uncharacteristic errors. The American never retreated, even when down a break in the final set.
Shelton captured his first break of serve to close to level at 4-4 and reached a set point on Djokovic’s serve, which he could not capitalize on. But the American broke Djokovic for a second time to force a tiebreak and briefly give the home crowd hope.
“These are the types of matches I thrive on,” Djokovic said on-court after the win. “The ones that inspire me to keep working as hard as the young guys.”
Over the course of three sets, the young guy Shelton simply could not be consistent enough to keep pace with the veteran. The American committed 43 unforced errors, compared to 25 for Djokovic.
Prior to the match, Shelton had said that his advantage—if he could really imagine having one over the all-time major leader—was that the two had never played, and thus Shelton could “bring things to the table that maybe you don't see in your normal match...that are different and hopefully disruptive."
Shelton did seem to unnerve Djokovic in the final set, but the Serb figured out how to counter the American’s still-developing arsenal. The three-time US Open champion ended Shelton’s spirited Cinderella run at the Open.
Looking forward to Sunday’s final, Djokovic said, “I still feel something in my legs left. I still feel I have something to give to the sport.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Djokovic obviously has been in this position before. An awful lot. The Serb has now won 22 of his last 23 major tournament semifinals since 2015 (his only semifinal loss was to Dominic Thiem in five sets at Roland Garros in 2019).
In his 100th US Open singles match, Djokovic moved into a tie with Bill Tilden for the most US Open finals appearances in history: 10. An outstanding hardcourt player over the course of his career, Djokovic nonetheless has a lopsided and less-than-superlative finals record in Flushing—just 3-6—which pales in comparison to his finals appearances at the other three majors.
The imbalance between Djokovic and Shelton was about as great as you’ll see in a Slam semifinal. It was a resume—as well as age—mismatch: Djokovic is ranked No. 2 (and will return to No. 1 regardless of the outcome in the final on Sunday) versus Shelton’s No. 47 (the American will climb into the Top 20 on Monday though). The Serb has 1,070 career wins; Shelton, just 15. And Djokovic has amassed 95 ATP titles, while the 2022 NCAA singles champion, in just his second year on tour, is still looking for his first win.
Shelton, who was just 5-15 in his last 20 matches prior to entering the Open, caught fire in Flushing. The American upset No. 14 seed Tommy Paul and last year’s semifinalist Frances Tiafoe, the 10th seed. John McEnroe and other tennis insiders have asserted that Shelton has the most upside of any of the contingent of young American men hopefuls, but the Floridian’s powerful game is still relatively raw compared to the Top 10 20-year-olds Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and Holger Rune of Denmark.
MATCH POINT: Djokovic, 36, is the oldest man to appear in the US Open semifinals since Jimmy Connors, who was 39 in his famous run in 1991. The Serb could now face two 20-year-olds back to back if Alcaraz wins his semifinal Friday night against Daniil Medvedev. Djokovic is seeking to become the oldest man to win the US Open singles title in the Open Era.