Let’s say for a moment that Ben Shelton somehow finds a way to defeat Novak Djokovic in their US Open semi-final this afternoon (3:00 pm start).
How would it happen? How in the world would he pull it off?
There are five distinct pathways to victory that all need to merge to spawn such a shocking, dramatic victory. Here they are.
1: RALLY LENGTH (Tournament Average = 68% in 0-4 Shots)
To the semi-finals, Shelton is playing a speedy 76% of his points in the 0-4 rally length. To be clear, both players only hit the ball in the court a MAXIMUM of two times for it to qualify for this rally length. Points are short, hard-hitting, and dominated by power, spin, superior court position, and taking time away from your opponent.
Shelton is at 76% in 0-4 shots. The tournament average is 68%. Djokovic is less than that at 65%. Make no mistake: Shelton must keep the 0-4 rally length above 70% range if he has a chance of winning. Djokovic will for sure look to drag this number down lower. If Djokovic can make 0-4 shots around his average of 65%, then he will win.
Shelton and Djokovic are neck-and-neck with their advantage in 0-4 shots. Shelton has an 82-point advantage in 0-4 shots to the semi-finals, and Djokovic has an 81-point advantage. It’s essentially even here, which is a significant advantage for Shelton because Djokovic has yet to face anyone with the same firepower with serves, forehands, and net play.
Djokovic defeated Alexander Muller, Bernabe Zapata Miralles, Laslo Djere, Borna Gojo and Taylor Fritz. Only Djere has got in his grill so far. Djokovic has not yet faced a wrecking ball in 0-4 shots like Shelton promises to be.
Now, let’s combine 5-8 shots and 9+ shots into one metric of 5+ shots. Shelton has lost nine more points than he has won in this rally length. Djokovic is +51. Djokovic is killing it in longer rallies, which is exactly where he will want to drag Shelton.
Picture a crocodile dragging dinner from the edge of the lagoon back into the deep water.
Djokovic will once again win the 5+ battle against Shelton, but if Shelton can play 75% of points in 0-4 shots then it won’t matter. But if Shelton can only play 65% in 0-4 shots, then it will matter greatly.
2: AVERAGE RALLY LENGTH
Here’s the average rally length for both players to the semi-finals.
Djokovic Average Rally Length
- Rd 1 vs. Muller = 4.48 shots
- Rd 2 vs. Miralles = 4.85 shots
- Rd 3 vs. Djere = 5.41 shots
- Rd 4 vs. Gojo = 3.59 shots
- Rd 5 vs. Fritz = 4.08 shots
- Average = 4.55 shots
Shelton Average Rally Length
- Rd 1 vs. Cachin = 3.21 shots
- Rd 2 vs. Thiem = 3.73 shots (one set)
- Rd 3 vs. Karatsev = 2.62 shots
- Rd 4 vs. Paul = 3.23 shots
- Rd 5 vs. Tiafoe = 3.53 shots
- Average = 3.22 shots
Shelton has not come close to averaging four shots a rally in any match. Djokovic is in that space in four of his five matches. The lowest average for Djokovic was 3.59 shots vs. Gojo. Four of Shelton’s five matches were below that.
If Shelton can keep the average rally length below four shots a point, he has a real shot. As soon as the average climbs over four shots a point, picture the hungry crocodile again swimming to the deep water with a tasty dinner.
3: RETURN GAMES WON (Tournament Average = 22%)
Djokovic is twice as good as the tournament average (22%) in breaking serve, winning a staggering 44% of his return games. That’s second only to Medvedev, who is breaking at a ridiculous 49% of the time.
Shelton is a ways off that mark, breaking 30% of the time.
Shelton’s best mindset is to go in with a plan to try and NOT break Novak in every service game. He only needs to break him once, maybe twice a set.
Why think like that?
It will mirror reality and give Shelton the freedom to really attack the Djokovic serve with some big cuts at the ball with his return and Return +1 play. Not all of them are going to land, and that’s ok.
The other big benefit of going big early when returning is that in the games he loses, he is not giving Djokovic the rhythm he wants from establishing long rallies and wearing Shelton out. If Shelton doesn’t break serve, it’s best if Djokovic does not get to dine on long rallies at the same while holding serve. That’s just a waste of mental and physical energy for the American.
4: RETURN APPROACHES
I wrote a blog about Ben Shelton hitting 10 return approaches vs. Frances Tiafoe.
Click HERE to read it.
The return approach is a PREDATOR strategy that could quite easily play an instrumental role in Shelton shocking Djokovic. Djokovic is winning 59% of his 2nd serve points leading into the semi-final. He has also committed 17 doubles faults.
Shelton can rattle the cage by hitting 10+ return approaches in this match. Probably closer to 20 would be more ideal. This way, points stay short, Djokovic does not get the rhythm he craves, and Shelton can apply maximum pressure in return games.
And the pro-American crowd is going to lose their mind seeing him trying to take charge of the match.
5: NET VS. BASELINE
Here are the averages for both players to the semis.
- Baseline Points Won = 48% (192/403)
- Net Points Won = 65% (106/163)
- Baseline Points Won = 56% (293/525)
- Net Points Won = 71% (78/110)
It would be a minor miracle for Shelton to crack 50% baseline points won in this match. If he can stay at 48%, that will be good enough. In big matches like these, Djokovic has a habit of knocking down the opponent’s baseline points won to UNDER 40%.
If that happens, Shelton won’t survive.
Shelton needs to seek refuge at the net. That will also help reduce Djokovic’s baseline points won, as it will be tough trying to hit passing shots from the baseline again and again.
This is a net match for Shelton. It’s also all about short, explosive rallies. Djokovic wants it to be a baseline battle. He wants to drag everything out. Let’s see who can make the other bend to their own intentions.
Hoping for an instant classic.