There was a time when a US Open quarter-final match between two American hard-hitting men could be referred to as “tennis” rather than a historic night for the sport in this country.
This is how the domestic Grand Slam will always be for the country that wins the Davis Cup, the team event that more nations compete for than any other. But it wasn’t that way, not for 18 years, and then on a Tuesday night, two young black men, Francis Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, did it again.
They came to her from different places: Tiafoe, the son of a maintenance man at a tennis center in suburban Maryland; Shelton, son of a former top 60 touring pro who became a highly regarded collegiate coach. Over the past year they have become brothers of sorts. Tiafoe, the 25-year-old veteran who has become one of the most popular players on the tour, guides 20-year-old Shilton, who did not have a passport a year ago, through his first season as a professional. .
“Off the pitch he’s a great guy, but on the pitch he’s a nightmare to deal with,” Shilton said of Tiafoe over the weekend.
A powerful left-hander whose nearly 150-mph serve and 112-mph forehand became the tournament’s sensation, and rightfully so.
“Ben has wanted to play The Open with me for a long time,” Tiafoe said while discussing his game plan. “Make him play a lot of balls, just try to make it a very difficult night for him.”
On a thick, sweaty, balmy night at Arthur Ashe Stadium that seemed to only get hotter with time, Tiafoe and Shelton put on the kind of nervous, tight show that stretched past midnight and into Wednesday morning. The US Open is famous for its late night shows, historic fights that few people can make it through to the end. It wasn’t like that from Tuesday through Wednesday, as the court remained rowdy and direct and Shilton and Tiafoe traded punches and counterpunches from start to finish.
At the end of the match, Shilton won 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.
Shilton hit early, played the first set as a loose mid-career pro he did before, hit his serve arm and forehand while Tiafoe looked tight and sloppy, gave up two breaks on serve and did a lot of Shilton’s work for him.
But then Tiafoe bounced back, fighting back to play the match like it was a testosterone-fueled batting contest. He picked up points and games and allowed Shilton to calm down and tighten up, as younger players often do, to equalise.
The match turned into a decisive third-set tiebreak, a seesaw battle that Shilton came close to before committing two consecutive double faults. Suddenly, Tiafoe, who relinquished control of the group a few runs ago, is on edge again.
Barring injury or some other catastrophe, Shilton is likely to have plenty of moments like the one next, with Tiafoe one point away from a two-sets lead.
There is a certain sound coming from Shilton’s racket when he serves or hits like he and world number one Carlos Alcaraz do these days. It is not like hitting the familiar strings hitting a felt ball, but more like a sledgehammer driving a nail into a railroad tie. Tiafoe’s transmissions were very good. Chilton’s front return exploded on the line inches from the corner. Tiafoe hardly moved for it.
“Sometimes you just have to close your mind, close your eyes, and just swing,” Shelton said.
After two errors, Shelton took the set and, for all intents and purposes, the match, breaking Tiafoe’s serve in the first game of the fourth set and never looking back.
“I left it all out there tonight,” Shelton said. “An emotional battle.”
He meets Novak Djokovic, winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, in the semi-finals on Friday.
“It doesn’t get any better,” Shelton said.
Maybe you will.