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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, September 8, 2023


Novak Djokovic beat Ben Shelton 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) to reach his record-tying 10th US Open final and 36th career Grand Slam final.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

NEW YORK—Tennis teaches us to face our fears.

A sharp Novak Djokovic continues to stomp scary trials.

More: Protesters Disrupt Semifinals

Playing his 100th career US Open match, Djokovic defused a third-set scare deconstructing semifinal débutante Ben Shelton 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) to reach his record-tying 10th US Open final today.

The 20-year-old Shelton showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in the third set when he earned set point at 5-4, 40-30 on Djokovic’s serve stirring the pro-American crowd into a frenzy.

The second seed dialed up defiance denying set point, taking charge of the tiebreaker then mimicking Shelton’s standard celebration miming hanging up after dealing defeat to the explosive American. Djokovic's 10 Flushing Meadows finals equals Hall of Famer Big Bill Tilden's all-time record.

"These are kind of matches and occasions that I still thrive on,” Djokovic told ESPN's James Blake afterward. “They still get me going, inspire me to wake up every day trying to work as hard as the young guys.

"Grand Slams motivate me the most to play my best tennis. I knew prior to quarters and semis I’m gonna play an American player—never easy hold the nerve. Today things were going really smoothly then he broke back and it was anybody’s set. Obviously it was loud with the roof closed. This is the kind of atmosphere we love to play in so I’m very happy with this win today.”

The 36-year-old Serbian superstar solidified his status as a champion for all surfaces.

The reigning Australian Open and Roland Garros champion advanced to the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments this season marking the third time in his career he’s done it (along with 2015 and 2021).

It is the record-extending 36th Grand Slam final of Djokovic’s career—an absolutely astounding mark when you consider he’s played 72 Grand Slams and reached finals in half of them.

History is on the line in Sunday’s 4 p.m. final when Djokovic carries a 23-12 Grand Slam final record into the title match.

Djokovic will face 2021 champion Daniil Medvedev, who famously denied the Serbian’s quest to complete the calendar Slam with his US Open finals triumph two years ago.

The third-seeded Medvedev dethroned defending champion Carlos Alcaraz 7-6(3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in three hours, 19 minutes.

“I expect the toughest match of the tournament for me regardless who is gonna be across the net,” said Djokovic, who is 26-1 in Grand Slam play this season. “Obviously Daniil won against me in US Open finals a couple of years ago...

“I still feel I have something in my legs left. I still feel like I have something to give to the sport. Another Grand Slam finals I can’t be happier.”

The second-seeded Djokovic is playing to equal Margaret Court’s all-time major record and capture his 24th Grand Slam championship. If he does it, Djokovic will be the oldest man in Open Era history to hoist the US Open title trophy and pocket a champion’s check of $3 million.

Thunder in the area on a dreary day prompted officials to close the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The closed roof created slower conditions that sapped some sting from Shelton’s seismic serve and create pristine conditions for pure ball-striker Djokovic.

Contesting his record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic wasted no time imposing his presence on Shelton.

The major semifinal debutant ran through a short forehand, missing it wide, to trail love-30 in the sixth game. Trying to surprise the Serbian superstar with the serve-and-volley, Shelton pushed his volley wide as Djokovic broke at 15 for 4-2.

Though Shelton’s serve has already emerged as one of the most damaging shots in the sport, it was Djokovic serving with more authority at the outset.

Pumping a 124 mph ace, Djokovic wrapped his third consecutive love hold for 5-2. From love-40 down, Shelton fought off three set points in the eighth game then slammed a smash to save a fourth set point holding for 3-5.

That was a temporary reprieve. Djokovic carved Shelton up from the baseline and when the American pasted a forehand into the middle of the net, Djokovic snatched the 34-minute opener with a clenched fist.

Playing cleaner tennis, Djokovic bled errors from Shelton who nearly tripled the second seed’s error output—15 to 4—in the first set. A bigger problem for Shelton: he served 84 percent in the set and was still beat decisively.

The challenge for Shelton was hitting big enough to threaten Djokovic while not hitting himself into oblivion in the process. Perhaps Shelton, the tournament ace leader who rocketed two 149 mph serves in the same game of his fourth-round win over Tommy Paul, could have amped up his serve speeds more or tried to bang big serves into the body.

Though when Shelton cranked up a heavy second serve, he double faulted away the break and a 3-2 second-set lead.

Tennis Express

Consolidating at 30, Djokovic extended his lead to 4-2 as Shelton, showing first signs of true frustration, waved his arms toward his box as if looking for answers.

Playing just the fifth major tournament of his career, Shelton oozes talent but also reminds how raw his game can still be. Shelton was too casual playing a drop shot and Djokovic sped up to it earning a break point in the seventh game. Shelton saved it, but again betrayed his cause with a drop volley that sat up.

A streaking Djokovic pushed a pass to break for 5-2.

Throughout the match, Djokovic exploited Shelton’s deep return positioning hitting his slider serve short in the box. When Shelton knocked a backhand into net, Djokovic grabbed a two-set lead after only 78 minutes of play.

Falling into a two-set hole, Shelton departed the court for a clothing change.

The former University of Florida standout returned to court clad in black to start the third set.

Djokovic proceeded to light Shelton up, sweeping a crisp pass to break for the fourth time to start the third set.

Still, Shelton did not yield engaging Djokovic in a dramatic 30-shot rally in the eighth game then unleashing his shotmaking skills.

Serving at 4-3, Djokovic confronted a break point two hours into this semifinal. Holding his ground, Shelton spun a backhand deep into the corner coaxing an error for his first break of the day and sparking a frenzy from fans. Shelton touched his ear with his hand exhorting fans to make more noise after evening the set 4-4.

Scalding a running forehand winner down the line, Shelton had fans screaming in support as he went up 30-0. Djokovic sprinted up to a net-cord ball and shoveled a winner around the post. An ace and a massive 145 mph serve winner—his fastest serve of the match—helped Shelton edge ahead 5-4.

When Djokovic’s backhand tripped on the tape and fluttered wide, Shelton had a set point and fans were on the verge of erupting. Djokovic snapped a wide serve winner to erase set point, eventually holding strong for 5-5.

You can’t fault Shelton for continuing to swing away, but on this day Djokovic was a far more effective percentage player. Shelton sailed successive forehands then tried to attack and paid the price.

Lining up his trusty two-hander, Djokovic drilled a pass breaking for 6-5.

Serving for his 10th US Open final, Djokovic dodged two break points to draw even at deuce. Shelton smacked a huge forehand into net handing Djokovic match point. A 17-shot rally ended with the Serbian missing a forehand down the line.

The Djokovic overhead is the only shot in his superior arsenal that can go off on occasion. Djokovic sent a smash into net as Shelton converted his third break point to force a tiebreaker.

Blocking a high forehand volley into the open court, Djokovic surged to a 5-1 lead in the breaker. Shelton closed the gap to 4-5 only to see Djokovic move forward and dig out successive fine volleys for match point number two.

In the ensuing 12-shot rally, Djokovic maintained depth drawing the 43rd unforced error of the day to end it in two hours, 41-minutes.

Pounding his first off his heart, Djokovic took one final dig at Shelton and his victory habit of hanging up an imaginary phone. Djokovic mimed slamming down the receiver before exchanging a quick handshake and looking ahead to his shot at history on Sunday afternoon.

At age 36, Djokovic is still at the top of the game—and will racking up record Slams with no sign of slowing down..

"So age is just a number, that phrase is resonating at the moment with me. And, you know, I don't want to even consider, you know, leaving tennis or thinking about an end if I'm still at the top of the game," Djokovic said. "I just don't see a reason for that.

"I will probably consider doing that if I get my ass kicked by young guys in the Grand Slams in the years to come in the earlier stages, and then I'll probably say, okay, maybe it's time to move on. But so far, you know, I still feel that I'm in the game."


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