First of all, Shelton is unseeded and ranked 47th. Carlos Alcaraz is seeded No. 1, Novak Djokovic is No. 2 and Daniil Medvedev is No. 3, the first time since 2011 that the top three players in the men’s bracket made it to the final four in Flushing Meadows.
Shelton, a 20-year-old who was born in Georgia and won an NCAA singles title for the University of Florida in 2022, has yet to earn a Grand Slam trophy, let alone the US Open. Djokovic owns 23 major championships overall, Alcaraz two and Medvedev one. Djokovic won titles in New York in 2011, 2015 and 2018 and was the runner-up on six other occasions; Medvedev left as champion in 2021 and was the runner-up in 2019; Alcaraz is the defending champion.
Shelton will be appearing in his first major semifinal. His opponent Friday, Djokovic? This is No. 47 for him, one more than Roger Federer for the most by a man in the Open era. Medvedev is in his seventh trip to the final four; his opponent, Alcaraz, has made it this far for the fourth Slam in a row.
“I’m definitely going to try to bring some things to the table that are different and hopefully disruptive on Friday,” Shelton said.
Here’s how new all of this is to him: When Shelton finished off a physically demanding four-set victory against Frances Tiafoe in an all-American quarterfinal on Tuesday night, someone mentioned that he’d have some time to rest, recuperate and prepare to meet Djokovic.
That was news to the kid.
“I’m pretty glad I have two days off from singles. I didn’t know until a couple minutes ago,” Shelton said with his trademark big smile. “They’re like, ‘You know you don’t play ‘til Friday, right?’ That was nice to hear.”
But he did not sound overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to test his intimidating left-handed serves—he leads the tournament with 76 aces and a top speed of 149 mph (240 kph)—against Djokovic, who is widely considered the top returner in the game and has won 44% of his opponent’s service games in the tournament (Medvedev leads that category at 49%).
“Whenever you play somebody for the first time, and someone who has been in this situation so many times and come out victorious so many times, that’s in the back of your head. You just know how rock-solid the guy is and how mentally tough, how physically tough. So that’s definitely something that I have to game plan for,” said Shelton, who had never traveled outside the United States until the beginning of this year and reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January.
“I also think that it’s an advantage with my game style playing someone who’s never played me before,” he said. “I think that I can bring some things to the table that maybe you don’t see in your normal match.”
Aside from the zipping serves and hit-it-hard-as-you-can forehands, there’s also the boundless enthusiasm Shelton displays. The biceps flexing and the loud shouts of “Yeah!” after winning points and his victory-celebrating “Hang up the phone, the conversation’s over!” routine that mimics something done by former Florida track and field athlete Grant Holloway, who recently won his third consecutive world championship in the 110-meter hurdles.
Alcaraz, for one, has taken note.
“I love seeing him play. I really do. And he also has a good time on court. It shows. He smiles. Very aggressive. Big-hitting shots. If I’m not mistaken, he was playing in college a year ago and now he’s in the semifinals of a Grand Slam a year later, facing one of the best players ever,” Alcaraz said. “We’ll see how he responds, but he seems to be doing it with lots of ease, maturity. I’m sure Djokovic will have a tough challenge. It’s going to be an entertaining match to watch.”
Image credits: AP