Experience was marred by youthful exuberance as Novak Djokovic ended Ben Shelton’s American dream at the US Open while infuriating the young talent by mimicking his celebratory “hang up” gesture after the match.
The 36-year-old Djokovic stopped the 20-year-old Shelton’s breakthrough in the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) win on Friday in Flushing Meadows.
It was a defeat that will extend America’s wait for its first home men’s champion since Andy Roddick in 2003 by at least another year and also marks a record 10th appearance in the men’s final for Djokovic.
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The divide on major occasions was evident from the start, with Djokovic playing his 100th US Open match and Shelton his seventh.
Shelton was the youngest American to reach the semifinals since Michael Chang in 1992, and Djokovic was the oldest since Jimmy Connors a year earlier.
The Serb played his 47th Grand Slam semi-final and Shelton his first.
Now Djokovic is just one win away from his 24th major title and becoming the oldest winner in the Open era. He surpasses Australian Ken Rosewall, who was 35 when he won the title in 1970.
Djokovic celebrated his victory by mimicking Shelton’s “hang up the phone” celebration gesture and the pair exchanged a cold handshake at the net.
Djokovic’s post-match antics sent social media into a frenzy and many fans were unhappy with his performance.
“And he wonders why people don’t like him or boo him. Great player but don’t expect fans to love you with things like that,” one person wrote on X (formerly Twitter).
“Novak is so unpleasant. Making fun of a 20 year old kid like that? There is simply no need for it. Do it better. “You’re 36 years old,” another person said.
“Pathetic. This is why Nole will never be seen in the same light as Rafa and Roger. He doesn’t want anyone to succeed except himself,” another added.
Others said Djokovic’s celebration was “so disrespectful” and “inappropriate,” while one person said it was “hard for neutrals to like him.”
“Hang up, guys, that’s it,” an ESPN commentator said of the celebration.
“Wasn’t the warmest handshake you usually see from Djokovic, usually he’ll pat you on the shoulder or even half hug you, pat you on the stomach or something.
“I’m not sure what it was, maybe he didn’t want to give the 20-year-old anything, he knows he might have to face him a few more times.”
Djokovic said he is still motivated to keep playing as he prepares for a final against Carlos Alcaraz or Daniil Medvedev.
“Look, these are the kinds of games and occasions that still excite me and that inspire me to wake up every day and work hard,” Djokovic said.
“Grand Slams are the most important ones, the ones that mean the most to me. Playing against an American player is never easy and I had to hold my nerve.
“At the end of the third set it was anyone’s game. I’m really happy about this win today.”
In a game of poor serving, Shelton gave Djokovic a break in the first set with three unforced errors, including an ill-advised drop shot.
The youngster saved four set points on his own serve and had a breakback point on the next serve, but was unable to capitalize on it as Djokovic had the first set on the board after 34 minutes.
A double fault gave Djokovic another break in the second round, while Shelton’s unforced errors really started to pile up; At the end of the second set he had scored 27 to Djokovic’s nine hits.
Shelton gave the New York crowd something to cheer about in the third round when he broke twice and scored a set point on Djokovic’s serve.
That was quickly erased, however, and Djokovic prevailed in the tiebreak to secure his 36th Grand Slam final – which, incredibly, is half of all the major tournaments he has played.
– With Joel Martelli