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Ben Shelton beats Frances Tiafoe on a groundbreaking night at the U.S. Open


NEW YORK — They don’t keep things like this in the record book, but Tuesday night at the U.S. Open might have been the first time two players walked out at Arthur Ashe Stadium to rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz.” So, at the least, tournament organizers understood they had a moment on their hands.

Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton’s all-American quarterfinal matchup in prime time, which Shelton won, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-2, to become the youngest American man in the U.S. Open semifinals since 20-year-old Michael Chang in 1992, had many layers of significance.

They were two of the three American men who made it to the U.S. Open quarterfinals, which is the most the host country has had since 2005. It was the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of the Open era, which began in 1968, that featured two Black American men. And their meeting felt like the culmination of a development that has been difficult to ignore at the U.S. Open this year: Tennis is cooler than ever.

To be sure, the U.S. Open has long been a must-attend event among some of pop culture’s biggest tastemakers and glossy-magazine fixtures, thanks to stalwart attendees such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Alec Baldwin, but its popularity is growing across the board. The U.S. Open has been smashing daily attendance records, with 502,385 stopping by in the first week. The first six days of main-draw action were the six highest-attended days in U.S. Open history.

But the popularity of tennis also is growing in a new direction. Much of that is thanks to a fresh generation of diverse young stars, which began with Naomi Osaka’s ascendance in 2018 and now includes Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff, Tiafoe and Shelton, attracting new audiences to the sport. You can tell the fan demographic is changing by the type of famous people who have come to watch matches.

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The celebrities this year include a slew of NBA superstars, including the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young, the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell. Rapper Pusha T came to watch Tiafoe. The celebrities who have come to watch Gauff’s matches alone typify the generational shift — tennis isn’t just Barack-and-Michelle-Obama cool; it’s Justin-and-Hailey-Bieber cool. Both couples cheered her on last week.

“Yeah, again, diversity in sport speaks volumes,” said Tiafoe, who played in front of Michelle Obama during his run last year. “Obviously it has people tune into the game that usually wouldn’t. …Obviously I want to impact a lot of people of color to want to pursue the game of tennis. It’s big shoes to fill but a great seat to be in.”

On Tuesday night, Tiafoe and Shelton played in front of a raucous crowd. Former world No. 4 James Blake was there for the coin toss as a nod to the importance of two Black American men facing off in a stadium named for Arthur Ashe.

After that, the players went to work in hair-curling humidity.

Although he was the higher-seeded and far more experienced player, it was Tiafoe who seemed to have early jitters playing such a hyped-up match. He was used to being an underdog in late-round, late-night matches on the U.S. Open’s biggest stage, and as the favored player, he was tight. Against the uber-athletic Shelton, that wouldn’t do. The 2022 NCAA champion at Florida is one of the only players on tour who can match Tiafoe’s speed, and he plays with a sledgehammer instead of a racket.

“I thought it was super hot tonight, really muggy, super humid. Was sweating a lot, balls were really heavy,” Tiafoe said. “He was able to hit through the ball a bit more than I was. Yeah, he just played better than me. I gave him a lot of chances to stay in the match, and he took advantage of it. Hats off to him.”

Shelton had the benefit of lower expectations. The 10th-seeded Tiafoe, 25, was trying to match his electric semifinal run here from last year and then break through at a Grand Slam, while the unseeded Shelton, 20, was the underdog who could hit freely and go for big shots — and one who also happens to have the best serve in the tournament. The lefty finished with 14 aces but 11 double faults in a back-and-forth match that featured big hitting and equally big misses.

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Shelton’s serve grew less consistent as the match wore on, and his level dropped during a third set in which he vacillated between searing hot and ice cold. In the pivotal tiebreaker, Shelton earned himself two set points with a sharp backhand winner before erasing one by sending a backhand long on Tiafoe’s second serve.

Then, with the chance to serve for the set at 6-6 in the tiebreaker, Shelton served consecutive double faults before swinging back in the other direction and making it 7-7 with a 105-mph forehand return winner off a Tiafoe second serve.

“Honestly, at down set point I needed to let a little bit of that frustration out and kind of just let it go,” Shelton said. “… I kind of needed a release and it ended up working out for me.”

He finally won it, and took a two-sets-to-one lead, when Tiafoe sent a backhand long. After the third set lasted 69 minutes, Shelton had little trouble taking the fourth and won the match on his 50th winner. Up next for Shelton: a Friday semifinal with No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic.

But first, a little celebration. After he won, Shelton put his hands on his hips and mimed picking up a landline phone, answering the call then slamming it down.

“It’s kind of like I’m saying I’m dialed in,” Shelton said, of the idea. “…The first time that I really saw it is I’m really close friends with a lot of track and field athletes who train at the University of Florida where I live in Gainesville. One in particular, Grant Holloway, who’s won the World Championships I think three times in a row now, that’s kind of his signature thing.”

Shelton felt just fine borrowing the celebration for the biggest win of his career. The crowd, of course, loved it.


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