The generational divide between 36-year-old Novak Djokovic and 20-year-old Ben Shelton was obvious when the U.S. Open semifinalists clashed at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday afternoon.
It also manifested itself after the match, when Djokovic mocked Shelton’s trademark phone celebration and demonstrably hung up on the lad, who appeared none too pleased during what was nothing more than a perfunctory handshake at net.
Neither player, though, stoked the fire during their post-match press briefings. Instead they were coy.
“I just love Ben’s celebration,” said Djokovic, who was quite complimentary of his opponent’s game. “I thought he was very original and I copied him. I stole his celebration.”
Shelton said he did not see the gesture until later. There was some edge to his take. Some subtlety, too.
“You know, I don’t like it when I’m on social media and I see people telling me how I can or can’t celebrate,” Shelton said. “I think if you win the match you deserve to do whatever you want.
“As a kid growing up, I always learned that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”
Point, Shelton, two hours after the match had ended.
Shelton has a way about him. He’s of this era of bat flips, flexing and hot cellys. He’s not necessarily flashy, but he is of this era of building a brand on and off the court. Oh, and by the way, he can play some tennis, too. There’s no disputing that, but he’s got a strut in his step on the court that may offend some.
Maybe that’s not on him. Maybe that’s you.
The first two sets were not especially competitive. Shelton had one break point in the ninth game of the first frame, which Djokovic saved. Shelton didn’t generate another until the eighth game of the third set, with Djokovic serving at 4-3. There were a few boomers on his serve — 136 mph and 138 mph in the second game of the first set; 143 mph (!) on a second serve (!!) in the second set — but the native of Atlanta just did not have the tools to stay with Djokovic.
Late in the third, though, the dynamic shifted. So did the tenor. Shelton broke Djokovic in the eighth game to level the set at 4-all. Fans, who wanted to see more tennis and to show support for the young American, unleashed a “Let’s Go Ben” chant that resounded through the closed-roof stadium.
Shelton’s body language changed. He seemed to flex after winning points. He saved two break points at 5-all. For the first time, he appeared to dictate play. His power moved the 23-time Slam champion around the court. Djokovic wavered. The crowd celebrated. So, in his inimitable way and at the baseline, did Shelton.
The world’s 47th ranked player — who should move into the top 20 when the new rankings are released on Monday — was broken at 5-all, but immediately broke back in the subsequent game with Djokovic serving for the match at 6-5. The crowd was humming.
The tiebreak tilted Djokovic’s way early. Shelton, down 1-5, gained some energy after switching sides to the end at which his team, including his father and coach, Bryan Shelton, was situated. He moved within 4-5 by winning three straight points, but Djokovic ended it by taking the next two points on serve. The match ended when Shelton put a baseline backhand into the net.
You have to understand Shelton’s exuberance and self-confidence. After he advancing to the quarterfinals in Australia earlier this year, he flamed out in the first round in Paris and the second round at Wimbledon.
He was fourth in the pecking order among the Yoots of America, behind No. 14 Tommy Paul, No. 10 Frances Tiafoe and No. 9 Taylor Fritz. He is six years younger than Paul and Fritz, five years younger than Tiafoe. But he cut the line here in only his first full season on the tour.
Maybe he will become the first American to win a Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick triumphed at Flushing Meadows in 2003, 11 months after Shelton was born.
“I’m not sure what it’s going to take. I don’t know if it’s going to be me,” Shelton, gracious and proud, said during his press briefing. “I don’t know if it’s going to be someone else who breaks through. I always say that American tennis is moving in a great direction and the right direction.”
Djokovic has moved on to Sunday, when he will be seeking to claim his third Slam of the year (he was denied by Alcaraz in an epic five-set final at Wimbledon) and 24th of his incomparable career. Shelton will move on to Vancouver to play in the Laver Cup team competition.
Hold the phone.