NEW YORK — Ben Shelton is 20 years old, still new to this whole professional tennis thing. He is equipped with a tremendously good serve, but don’t think he can’t come through in other ways when it matters the most.
On a muggy night in which, yes, he hit 14 aces but also hit 11 double faults, Shelton used one blink-and-you-missed-it booming return to save a set point in the pivotal tiebreaker and reached his first Grand Slam semifinal by edging Frances Tiafoe 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 at the US Open in a back-and-forth contest filled with huge hitting by both.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to shut off the brain, close your eyes and just swing,” Shelton said about his forehand return winner off an 83 mph second serve that prevented Tiafoe from taking a two-sets-to-one lead. “Some may say ‘clutch,’ but I don’t know about all that.”
“An unbelievable return from way back there,” he acknowledged. “Come on. That’s unheard-of stuff.”
Two missed shots by Tiafoe later and that set belonged to Shelton.
Shelton broke to begin the fourth and never looked back.
“End of that third set is when I really had to dig deep,” said Shelton, the youngest man from the United States in the US Open semifinals since Michael Chang was 20 in 1992.
The matchup, which began in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday evening and ended after midnight Wednesday, was the first major quarterfinal between two African-American men in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
“It’s great with two people of color going at it. Obviously, a historic moment,” Tiafoe said. “But ultimately, once you get out there, you just want to win.”
It was also the first US Open quarterfinal since 2005 between two men from the host country, which hasn’t claimed a Slam trophy in men’s singles since Andy Roddick won at Flushing Meadows two years prior to that.
The crowd seemed to have a tough time deciding for whom to cheer, prodding both players at various points of the often even matchup.
Shelton will face Novak Djokovic on Friday for a berth in the final. Djokovic reached his record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, breaking a tie with Roger Federer for the most by a man, by defeating Taylor Fritz 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
Asked whether he knew whom he’d play next, Shelton smiled and said, knowingly, “He’s won maybe 23 of these? Something like that?” — referring to Djokovic’s total number of major championships. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Both the unseeded Shelton and the No. 10 seed Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who was a semifinalist at Flushing Meadows a year ago, wore sleeveless muscle shirts. Shelton’s was mostly black with fuchsia down the left side; Tiafoe’s was green with a mix of colors on the front that Coco Gauff described as “confetti.”
Both were soaked by sweat throughout, because although the temperature had slid from the 90 degrees of the afternoon to about 82 degrees by nighttime, the humidity rose to 70%.
“It was a hot one in here tonight, wasn’t it guys?” Shelton asked the spectators afterward. “Feeling like I left it all out here tonight. Emotional battle.”
“I’m thinking to myself as I’m walking to get my towel in the fourth set, and it’s like, ‘This is the greatest moment on the tennis court of my life, and I’m in a lot of pain physically,'” Shelton described later in his postmatch news conference. “But I’m loving it. I think that was just kind of the story of today.”
Both players hit the ball hard. But Shelton was the one drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd with his every-bit-of-strength lefty forehands that topped 100 mph and serves that zoomed even faster. An ace at 138 mph — he reached 149 mph twice in a fourth-round victory against another American, No. 14 Tommy Paul — generated a loud reaction from spectators, as well as a “Yeah!” from the excitable Shelton himself.
It was Tiafoe, the one with a tad more experience, whose game was littered with mistakes early. A double fault here, a flubbed over-the-shoulder volley that bounced way in front of the net there.