Shelton and Tiafoe Set Up All-American Sunday Showdown

By Hanlon Walsh

Americans Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe wore the red, white and blue with pride on Saturday’s semifinal occasion at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. In respective matchups against a battle-tested pair of South American-born clay court specialists, Shelton and Tiafoe prevailed on Stadium Court.

Shelton Outplays Etcheverry On His Own Turf

In Saturday’s first semifinal, No. 1 seed Shelton reeled off a three-set victory over No. 4 seed Tomas Martin Etcheverry, 2023 US Clay finalist, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4 in 2 hours and 29 minutes. At 6’5” and 6’4”, both players are known for their towering first serves, but it was Shelton who capitalized on the break opportunities today.

In addition to firing seven aces and winning 84% of his first serves, he was successful in converting three of four (75%) break points on Etcheverry’s high-bouncing serve. With Saturday’s three-set victory, Shelton improves to 7-2 (78%) in three-set matches this year in the best-of-3 format. 

“It took a few games into the second set for me to start hitting my stride,” said Shelton in his post-match interview with host Blair Henley. “I was frustrated with the outcome of the first set, as anyone would be after losing, but we have a lot of time on our side playing on the clay. The game moves slower and there is more time to process and work your way into every point.  I tried to use that to my advantage today, and am really happy to be in the finals here for my first time in Houston.”

Saturday’s win marks a few career milestones for the 21-year-old American - his second ATP Tour final and a return to his career-high ranking of No. 15. But perhaps even more significant for the once clay-averse Shelton, who finished 2-7 during his inaugural clay season in 2023, it will be his first ATP clay court final on the red dirt at River Oaks.

“The clay is really starting to grow on me,” added Shelton. “I’ve had a lot of support here from my family in the stands and also the family I’m staying with in Houston - the Hammers - they’ve housed one other player before during this tournament. It was Reilly Opelka - and he won the title here a few years ago. So I’m trying to make it 2-for-2 for them and want to thank you guys for letting me stay with you. It’s been a packed house every time I’ve played this week, so thanks so much and hope to see everyone on Sunday for the finals.”

Tiafoe One Win Away from Defending Houston Crown

Since James Duckworth’s letcord sailed wide to the doubles alley on match point during Tiafoe’s opening round win on Thursday night, Tiafoe has suddenly looked like his old self again. After gutting out a tight three-set opening round win over Duckworth, he notched back-to-back wins in his next two rounds over Australian Jordan Thompson and Italian Luciano Darderi - the only two 2024 ATP title winners competing in the Houston field this year.

His 6-2, 7-6(2) semifinal match against Darderi was the ultimate clay court test for Tiafoe. Heading into the semifinals, Darderi had posted an 11-2 record on clay in 2024 - the second most clay court wins of any ATP player this year behind Argentine Sebastian Baez. Darderi was also battle-tested, having won his first two matches in three-setters and saving three match points in his first round against American Denis Kudla.

“I thought I had a great performance today,” said Tiafoe in his post-match interview with Henley. “The clay courts here in Houston are a bit different than the ones in Europe; they play more like hard courts. I’m feeling so much better, playing more aggressively and just having more fun on the court. I’m going back to the basics and doing what I know how to do best.”

Similar to Shelton, Tiafoe’s serve has been a difference maker this week. Against Darderi, he fired nine aces and saved the only two break points he faced the entire match. In his last seven wins at River Oaks, he has held serve in 75 of 77 attempts.

Saturday’s semifinal win marks Tiafoe’s seventh consecutive victory at River Oaks, where he now has a 10-4 (71%) lifetime record. It is also the first time he has won three consecutive matches since last September at the 2023 U.S. Open, where he lost to Shelton in a four-set quarterfinal affair under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Former WTA Legends Offer Guidance to Shelton and Tiafoe

Beyond their traditional support team of coaches and physios, Shelton and Tiafoe have both enjoyed an added layer of mentorship and inspiration in Houston from a pair of former WTA legends who were once peers of their own.

Lori McNeil, a teaching professional at River Oaks who was a 1992 Roland Garros mixed doubles finalist with Bryan Shelton, has been a friendly face in the younger Shelton’s box alongside her former mixed doubles partner. During her playing career, McNeil was a former top 10 player and 1998 Roland Garros mixed doubles champion who won 10 WTA career singles titles and 33 WTA doubles titles. 

“It has been great having Lori sit next to my dad in my box all week in Houston,” said Shelton. “They’re great friends and she’s been a wonderful person to have around on the team this week. She has brought a lot of positive energy and I’ve really enjoyed getting to spend time with Lori this week.”

McNeil was also a 1987 Australian Open women’s doubles finalist alongside Houston-based Zina Garrison, who runs her own academy here and has been supporting Tiafoe behind the scenes this week. Tiafoe credited Garrison for being “one of his very closest friends” who has served as trusted counsel in his ear during his US Clay title defense. Garrison was a former top five WTA player who was a three-time mixed doubles major champion, 1988 Olympic gold and bronze medalist, and Wimbledon singles finalist with with 14 WTA singles titles and 22 doubles titles on her resume.

“Zina Garrison is here with me this week and has been helping me quite a lot behind the scenes,” said Tiafoe. “Hearing her advice and speaking to her has been incredible. She is such a legend.”

Shelton vs. Tiafoe: What’s at Stake?

Sunday’s singles final at River Oaks will be a cross-generational clash between 21-year-old Shelton and 26-year-old with high stakes on the line for both Americans.

For Shelton, who leads their head-to-head 1-0, a win in Houston would mark his first career title on clay and allow him to share history with his father and coach, Bryan. The elder Shelton was a River Oaks champion himself more than thirty years ago in 1992. He would win his first. On paper, it  would  propel his ranking to a new career-high of No. 14 - surpassing 26-year-old Tommy Paul to become the No. 2 ranked American behind No. 13 Taylor Fritz. 

If Tiafoe takes the title, he would be the first player to successfully defend at US Clay since American Steve Johnson in 2017-2018. It would also provide sweet revenge and help repair the mental scars many think he has faced since his disappointing four-set loss to Shelton in the 2023 U.S. Open quarterfinals in their only prior career meeting.

In his post-match press conference, Tiafoe seemed all but eager for the opportunity to level the scoreboard with his younger American peer. 

“Ben obviously has one of the best serves on tour,” added Tiafoe. “He’s a great player and it will be a tough match. He got me last year at the US Open so of course I’m looking for some revenge. I look forward to any kind of popcorn matchup like this. I just want to go out there and compete as well as I can. Right now it’s all about building. I’m ready for a good battle ahead on Sunday. 

Shelton and Tiafoe have already inked their place into American tennis record books ahead of their highly anticipated Sunday afternoon final. It will mark the third ATP event of 2024 to have already featured an all-American singles final coming on the heels of Dallas (Tommy Paul d. Marcos Giron) and Delray Beach (Taylor Fritz d. Paul).

In the River Oaks record books, both players will join the likes of a long list of American predecessors including  John Isner, Reilly Opelka, Steve Johson, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and many others to become the 10th all-American final contested at River Oaks in the Open Era. The 2024 champion will also become the seventh American to win the trophy at River Oaks over the last 10 editions of the event. 

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, both Shelton and Tiafoe will use this week as a critical springboard and confidence boost on the red dirt as they prepare for the long and grueling European clay swing ahead.

How and When to Watch

Sunday’s All-American singles final will begin at 2 p.m. on Stadium Court and will be broadcast on the ESPN App with Jimmy Arias, Sam Gore and Blair Henley on the call.


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