NEW YORK — As anticipated, 23-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic will face a surging, joyful 20-year-old at the final tennis major of the year. But he’ll do so one round earlier than expected. With a matchup against world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz still looming in Sunday’s final, Djokovic will first face Ben Shelton, the big-hitting, bigger-smiling American who took down two of the top-ranked U.S. men, Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe, in back-to-back matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium this week.
“I’m pretty pumped about the opportunity to go back out there and have the same feeling I have today against another really tough opponent,” Shelton said after his four-set win over Tiafoe in the quarterfinals late Tuesday. “I’ve been enjoying every moment on court, the interactions with the crowd and the tennis that’s being played.”
The unseeded Shelton was not the name on the lips of U.S. tennis fans hoping to watch an American man contest a Grand Slam final — in their home Slam, no less — for the first time since 2009. But he’s the last American man standing.
“I love to see American tennis going in a great direction and tennis in general going in a great direction,” Shelton said. It’s been two decades since Andy Roddick won here in 2003, the last American man to win a major, and this year, this Slam, seemed as good a time as any for someone to end that streak. The U.S. has eight players ranked in the ATP’s top 50, and Taylor Fritz and Tiafoe, ranked Nos. 9 and 10 in the world, have been building toward a breakout run at a major.
On Tuesday, and for the first time since 2005, three American men played in the quarters in Queens — including Fritz and Tiafoe — but only Shelton, who is ranked No. 47 and seeking his first tour-level title, emerged.
Over the past week and a half, Shelton has been calm and confident in big moments like the pivotal third-set tiebreaker against Tiafoe that ended one of the wildest sets of the tournament. Tied at one set apiece, the third set opened with six breaks in the first eight games — three from each player. In the tiebreaker, Shelton double-faulted, twice, at set…