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Novak Djokovic grounds high-flying Ben Shelton for 10th US Open final
The 23-time Grand Slam champion made quick work of his overawed American challenger to put himself a win away from a fourth US Open title.
Published Sep 08, 2023
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NEW YORK—Novak Djokovic used his tremendous experience to cover a 16-year age gap on Friday to end American Ben Shelton’s fairytale run at the 2023 US Open, hanging up on the unseeded 20-year-old, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) in two hours and 41 minutes under the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof.
“I'm obviously over the moon with the results so far on Grand Slams,” Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. “You know, playing in all four finals of all four slams in a season is amazing. It's the highest achievement I can think about when I start the season. That's what I dream about, that's what I really wanted, that's where I want to be, in this kind of position.
“There is another match left, so of course, you know, conversation will be probably even better if I win a title in two days. But definitely whatever happens, I'm extremely, yeah, proud and content with what I have achieved this year in Grand Slams.”
The win put Djokovic, a 23-time Grand Slam champion, into his 10th US Open final—improving to 87-13 in 100 main-draw matches—with a shot at his fourth title in Flushing Meadows still in play as he awaits the winner of 2021 champion Daniil Medvedev and 2022 champion Carlos Alcaraz.
If Alcaraz advances, Djokovic can renew a rivalry that has already produced two of the best matches of 2023: one in the finals of Wimbledon (where Alcaraz won his second major title) and one at the Western & Southern Open, where Djokovic avenged the defeat in a third-set tiebreaker.
But first, the soon-to-be world No. 1 had to get past Shelton, who has been the biggest story of the tournament in the midst of his best Grand Slam result. The Georgia-born, Florida-raised youngster surged through five matches, including four-set victories over countrymen Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe, to book his first-ever meeting with Djokovic.
“I couldn't remember the first time I saw him on the TV or saw him play,” Shelton admitted after defeating Tiafoe, a semifinalist last year. “When I was younger I wasn't really a big tennis watcher or watch full matches.”
Perhaps that helped make the 36-year-old appear less intimidating in the early stages of their semifinal as Shelton repeatedly crashed the net to earn a quick 15-30 opening on the Djokovic serve, setting the stage for a tense encounter.
The No. 2 seed soon steadied and before long had Shelton under pressure. Despite second serves as fast as 143mph, Djokovic proved far too consistent for his young challenger’s more audacious attempts to rouse the Ashe Stadium crowd. Though he initially thrilled them with more winners than his more illustrious opponent (30 to 28), he also struck a total 43 errors—more than double of Djokovic's impressively clean 25.
“I think I learned a lot about myself these two weeks, knowing how deep I can go, how deep I can dig what I can do competitively out on the tennis court, because I think it's such a mental sport,” Shelton said after the match. “I think that's such a big side of it. I kind of found a place where I can operate and still be calm and still be clear-minded but be a fierce competitor and get after, you know, the guy I'm playing at the same time and really -- I say this a lot to the people on my team—but be a dog out there, have a dog mentality.
“I was pretty happy with the way I competed throughout the tournament.”
Breaking in the fifth game of the opening set, Djokovic withstood a late surge that saw Shelton produce a break point as he attempted to serve it out at 5-3. The second set swung the match even more towards the Serb, who broke twice to take a commanding lead despite an irritation from someone in the crowd.
The third played host to the match's first major turning point: Djokovic had rode the momentum from the end of the second set into a 2-0 break advantage, but Shelton won a 30-shot rally in the eighth game to engineer only his second break chance of the match. A loose forehand from Djokovic evened the set and Shelton was suddenly on fire, striking overheads from the baseline and a running forehand winner that brought the crowd to its feet. A 145mph serve won him a third straight game and put him on the brink of a fourth set.
“I thought everything was working really well and in my favor, two sets to love up and 4-2,” Djokovic said. “Then things started to change. He had set point. I was serving for the match. Lost break. Maybe lost a little bit of a rhythm there.
“Yeah, quite close ending to the match with crowd getting involved. So, of course, it wasn't easy, you know, to close this match out, but I'm really glad I did in three sets. Didn't want to take this match to fourth set, that's for sure.”
A long rally and subsequent netcord took Shelton to set point, but Djokovic saved it and held on as Shelton soon dropped back down to Earth, playing a loose game that ended with a searing Djokovic pass and the chance to serve for a spot in the final.
Shelton made a brave last stand, saving match point and forcing a tiebreaker when Djokovic netted an overhead. Djokovic cleaned up his game in the ensuing Sudden Death, racing ahead 5-1 at the change of ends. Shelton made one last comeback but poor shot selection to end another thrilling rally brought Djokovic back to match point, which he converted and punctuated with a mocking hanging up of the phone—making a not-so-subtle reference to a celebration Shelton made in the previous match against Tiafoe.
“I just love Ben's celebration,” said Djokovic in press. “I thought it was very original, and I copied him. I stole his celebration.”
“As a kid growing up, I always learned that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” responded Shelton. “So that's all I have to say about that.”
Djokovic is now into his 36th total Grand Slam final, exactly half of his 72 total main draw appearances.
“Fact is that at 36, every Grand Slam final could be the last one,” said Djokovic So, I think that I probably value these occasions and opportunities to win another slam as more than I have maybe 10 years ago, because 10 years ago I felt like, ‘Hey, I still have quite a few years ahead of me.’ I don't know how many I have ahead of me now, or I don't know how many of the years where I play four slams in the whole season do I have in front of me.
“So, of course, I am aware of the occasion. But I try to approach Sunday's match as basically any other match with intention to win, and I'll play my opponent.”