By Sigurd Neubauer
Ben Shelton, 20, defeated Frances Tiafoe, 25, 6-2 3-6 7-6(7) 6-2, during the quarterfinals at the US Open on Tuesday night.
Although Tiafoe – as the world’s No. 10 – was the favorite to win, it became apparent from the outset of the match that Shelton had the momentum on his side. As the more experienced player, Tiafoe was able to briefly wrestle it back during a hard-earned second set but visibly struggled to maintain his focus, which became apparent during the tiebreak of the third set and carried into the fourth.
Tiafoe, as we have previously pointed out on these pages, has had an excellent year. In 2023, he achieved his long-term goal of becoming a top 10 player and even spoke openly about his desire to win the US Open. It was not to be, at least not this time.
Commenting on what’s next for Tiafoe, President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) Vesa Ponkka points out that he had a good tournament. “He came to the quarterfinals after all, but played a sloppy match against Shelton. Too bad that it happened in the quarterfinals of the US Open as it was a winnable one; he’s ‘kicking himself’ now,” the veteran coach adds.
Vesa Ponkka is one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches. Photo credit: Courtesy
Ponkka, who is also one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches, knows Tiafoe well from the 20 years the American wonderkind spent at the JTCC.
Responding to what happened to Tiafoe at the match, Ponkka describes the Marylander as having been “emotionally flat” coupled with the fact that he served poorly. “His serves last night contrasted to how he performed last year at the US Open when he made it to the semifinal.”
During last year’s semifinal, Tiafoe lost to Carlos Alcaraz who ended up winning the Grand Slam.
“The main reason Tiafoe lost last night was because of his serves, but Shelton played a great match. While Shelton took some chances that ended up working well for him, he’s currently ‘playing with the house money.’ His tennis is fearless, but that will change once his stature improves.”
While some commentators have suggested that Tiafoe has plateaued, an assessment the JTCC President disagrees with.
Responding to what kind of course corrections – if any – will be taken by Tiafoe and his team, Ponkka explains that professional teams don’t make assessments based on one match, but take a longer perspective. “Tiafoe’s serves must be more consistent as their percentages are too low.”
What the teams do do, the veteran coach points out, is to look at patterns. “Everyone can have an off-day. Evaluations are typically made at the end of the season.” Tiafoe, after all, made it to the quarterfinals where he had “one sloppy match. There’s no reason for Tiafoe or his team to panic,” he explains.
On what’s next for Shelton, Ponkka reveals that he will now become top 20 player. “He will become a very dangerous player with his big serve, but all players are now paying attention as Shelton won’t be able to surprise anyone anymore.” The JTCC President assesses that Shelton is on his way to become a really good player, but how he establishes himself is yet too early to tell.
On Friday, Shelton faces Novak Djokovic, 36, in the semifinal. “The Serb will not make any sloppy mental mistakes similar to Tiafoe – as he’s known for ‘not giving anything away for free.’ Shelton cannot take the same chances that he did against Tiafoe last night.” Still, Ponkka expects that the Serb will prevail over the American. “New York’s scorching heat will also play a factor in tomorrow’s match. Whoever has ‘the most energy in the tank’ will prevail.”
There is no reason for Tiafoe or his team to panic: Ponkka