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Novak Djokovic and Ben Shelton’s frosty history explained: ‘He did not behave with respect’

Djokovic and Shelton could meet in the Australian Open fourth round in a rematch of their US Open semi-final clash

Jamie Braidwood
Thursday 18 January 2024 05:26 GMT
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Novak Djokovic struggles in cricket match against Shane Warne's son at Australian Open

Novak Djokovic moved a step closer to a mouth-watering rematch with Ben Shelton at the Australian Open as the defending champion advanced through to the third round of the opening grand slam of the year.

Djokovic defeated the 21-year-old American in the semi-finals of the US Open last season, as the Serbian won a record-equalling 24th grand slam title, but all the talk after the straight-sets victory was about Djokovic’s celebration.

The 36-year-old Djokovic mimicked Shelton’s ‘phone down’ celebration and has since said he was irritated by a perceived lack of “respect” shown towards him by his younger opponent.

Djokovic and Shelton have only met once but it left an impression on the 24-time grand slam champion (Getty Images)

And now Djokovic and Shelton could be set for another grand-slam match after the Australian Open draw placed them on a fourth-round collision course. Djokovic will face Tomas Martin Etcheverry on Friday while Shelton, the 16th seed, takes on Adrian Mannarino.

The big-serving Shelton reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on his tournament debut last year and if he beats Mannarino, he will likely face Djokovic in the last-16 on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday morning.

It would be a blockbuster fourth-round match because of the pair’s history - here’s how it started.

What happened at the US Open?

Aged 20 and playing at the US Open main draw for only the second time, the unseeded Shelton stormed into the semi-finals thanks to eye-catching wins against fellow-American players Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe.

Shelton brought not just his huge left-handed serve to Flushing Meadows, but carried a sense of confidence and swagger as he knocked out two seeded opponents in Paul and Tiafoe.

After his four-sets win against Tiafoe, Shelton, the son of former professional Bryan Shelton, celebrated by picking up a pretend telephone, holding it to his ear, before hanging up and slamming it back down.

The celebration, which Shelton used to signify he was “dialled in”, or 100 per cent focused, was borrowed from US track star Grant Holloway - who is also a friend of Shelton’s.

Shelton put the ‘phone down’ on Tiafoe in the quarter-finals (Getty Images)

Ahead of his semi-final against Djokovic, which was to be their first career meeting, Shelton said he wanted to be “disruptive” against the World No 1.

“I think that it’s an advantage with my game style, playing someone who’s never played me before,” Shelton said.

“I think that I can bring some things to the table that maybe you don’t see in your normal match that you play on the ATP Tour.

“So I’m definitely going to try to bring some things to the table that are different and hopefully disruptive.”

Djokovic won in straight-sets, however, advancing to the final where he would win a record 24th grand slam title against Daniil Medvedev.

But when Djokovic won match point, he celebrated by copying Shelton’s celebration - holding a phone to his ear before slamming it down as he walked to the net to shake hands.

Djokovic then copied the celebration after the semi-final win (Getty Images)

How did Shelton respond?

Shelton joked that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and said Djokovic could celebrate as he pleased. “I didn’t see it until after the match,” he said. “You know, I don’t like when I’m on social media and I see people telling me how I can celebrate or can’t celebrate.

“I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want. You know, as a kid growing up, I always learned that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”

Despite the straight-sets scoreline (6-3, 6-2, 7-6) the quarter-final was competitive and Shelton added that he was “looking forward” to having the chance to play Djokovic again.

What did Djokovic say?

After the US Open semi-final, Djokovic said he “loved” Shelton’s celebration. “I thought it was very original, and I copied him. I stole his celebration,” Djokovic said.

But ahead of the Australian Open, Djokovic suggested there was more to the celebration than he initially revealed in New York and said he did the “phone down” in response to something Shelton did first.

In an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe, Djokovic accused Shelton of “unsporting” behaviour and was quoted as saying: “This is my reaction to a provocation that came from the other side, it was a reaction against him.

“He did not behave properly, with respect, on court, and before the match. I’m never going to make fun of someone if they don’t do something first. Every time I lose I always give my opponent a hug, I congratulate him, I respect him and his team. If anyone places himself in the ‘unsportsmanlike zone’, I react.”

What’s been said ahead of the Australian Open?

Djokovic and Shelton were placed on a collision course after the main draw of the opening grand slam of the year, falling in the same fourth-round section.

When arriving in Melbourne, Shelton said he was keen on moving on from the US Open fallout and didn’t engage with questions about Djokovic or his reported comments to L’Equipe following his first-round match.

Shelton said he had not seen Djokovic’s comments and when they were read to him replied: "I feel like I’ve been asked about it constantly in the last four or five months. I would rather just let it settle and move forward.

"We’re in Australia now, and we’re at the Australian Open and not the US Open anymore. I’m just focusing on the Australian Open and happy and grateful to be here."

When asked about his on-court behaviour and whether there was any “malice” in his conduct, Shelton replied: “I feel like I enjoy myself out on the tennis court. Everyone can have their opinion on who I am or how I act. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to your question.”

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