NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic limited big-serving Ben Shelton to five aces and broke him five times. He pushed back when the 20-year-old unseeded American produced a late stand that got the home crowd into the match.
And after finishing off a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory to reach his record-tying 10th US Open final and 36th at all major tournaments, Djokovic added a touch of insult to injury by mimicking the kid’s “Hang up the phone!” celebration gesture.
Djokovic then pointed to his temple and pounded his fist on his chest, before a stone-faced Shelton met him at the net for the most perfunctory of handshakes. A year after Djokovic could not travel to the United States for the Open because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, the 36-year-old from Serbia is one victory away from a fourth title at Flushing Meadows and 24th Grand Slam championship overall.
“These are the kind of matches and occasions that I still thrive on. They still get me going and inspire me to wake up and work hard like the young guys,” said Djokovic, who would be the oldest man to win the US Open in the professional era, which began in 1968.
“I still feel I have something in my legs left,” he said. “I still feel I have something to give to the sport.”
Djokovic will face a familiar foe in the final, as Daniil Medvedev ended Carlos Alcaraz’s reign as the Open champion with a 7-6 (3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory in the second semifinal that took a grueling 3 hours and 19 minutes.
The No. 3-seeded Medvedev won his lone major title at Flushing Meadows in 2021 by defeating Djokovic in that year’s final. That prevented Djokovic from completing what would have been the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969.
“The challenge is that you play a guy that won 23 Grand Slams, and I have only one,” Medvedev said. “When I beat him here, I managed to play better than myself, so I need to do it again. There is no other way.”
Shelton made things interesting in the third set of the first semifinal, lifting his level of play as Djokovic seemed to get a bit tight when the finish line neared. Shelton broke for the only two times in the match, even held a set point at 5-4, and later erased a match point on the way to forcing the concluding tiebreaker.
The fans loved it.
“It was loud,” Shelton said. “I mean, really loud.”
But Djokovic, always so tough when the going gets tough, pulled out the win.
“Got to hold the nerves and try to be composed in the moments that matter,” he said. “Things were going smoothly for me … and then it was anybody’s game at the end of the third set.”
Talking about the final before he knew who he would face, Djokovic said: “Of course, I expect the toughest match of the tournament for me, regardless of who’s going to be across the net.”
After winning the first-set tiebreak, Medvedev cruised in the second behind an unstoppable serve. Overall, he saved eight of the nine break points he faced and then often got the better of the match’s shortest points, winning 101 of the 174 exchanges that lasted four strokes or fewer.
And Alcaraz was not quite at his usual best from the baseline.
“We don’t see him do this often,” Medvedev said. “He started to miss a little bit.”
Alcaraz finally got the break he needed in the fourth game of the third set — setting up a fourth set that was an absolute slugfest, with two marathon games.
The sixth game was a 20-point affair, where Medvedev fought off five straight AD points before breaking on his second chance for a 4-2 lead.
In the ninth game, Medvedev fought off two break points to reach deuce, then four more breakers before converting his second match point with a forehand smash at the net to book his ticket in the final — successfully putting aside a pair of double-faults as some spectators called out to distract him.
“That’s not so nice. But I’m happy it didn’t help them,” Medvedev said. “They can go to sleep now.”
If Djokovic does end up leaving with the hardware this time, he would break a tie with Serena Williams for the most major singles championships in the Open era.
“It’s another shot for history,” said Djokovic, who was seeded No. 2 at the U.S. Open but will replace Alcaraz at No. 1 next week no matter what happens Sunday.