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Who Is Ben Shelton, the American Tennis Phenom Facing Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open Semifinals?

If you’re a tennis fan, you already know about Ben Shelton—at least since the early hours of this morning, around 12: 30 a.m., when, with his electrifying victory over that other American phenom, Frances Tiafoe, Shelton bought himself a place in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (Shelton plays 23-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic on Friday.)

If, however, you’re just hearing about him now—well, buckle up. It’s been a wild ride for the 20-year-old since turning pro a mere year ago, when he was ranked 165th in the world. When the new rankings come out on Monday, he’ll be at least 19th (and, of course, much higher if he pulls off a shocking upset of Djokovic).

His path to the top has been somewhat unconventional. In an era when most professionals start playing with some seriousness at the age of 3 or 4 and are often fully invested in the game before their age reaches double digits, Shelton didn’t really commit to tennis (preferring to play football) until he was 12 or so—despite (or perhaps because of) having a father who was a former pro himself, a mother who was a highly ranked juniors player, an uncle who was a former pro, and a sister who played college tennis.

Eventually, though, the sport started speaking to him—helped along, no doubt, by the fact that his father had become the tennis coach at the University of Florida, where Shelton began to truly shine, winning the NCAA singles title before turning pro late last year with a bang, beating world number-five Casper Ruud in the second match of his second tournament. Earlier this year, he reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and his march through the Open has been beyond impressive, even before last night’s big win.

It wasn’t just that he won on a big stage against a big player—it was how he won: With blistering, back-to-back 149-mph ace serves (the fastest in the tournament), and with some improbable, go-for-broke groundstrokes. Having just double-faulted—twice—and facing a break point in the fourth that would have evened the match at two sets each, Shelton let rip the kind of ridiculous, all-in forehand that, only by summoning the the confidence and will of a 20-year-old playing the biggest match of his life, caught the very corner of the court, thrilling a packed Ashe Stadium.



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