Shelton, Tiafoe Meet Clay Specialists in Semifinals Showdown

By Hanlon Walsh

Americans Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe inked their place into the semifinals with a pair of close, but convincing straight-set wins over their respective quarterfinal opponents. They will now face a stiff semifinal test against opponents who are more comfortable on the clay, with Shelton playing Argentina’s Tomas Martin Ethcheverry and Tiafoe taking on Italy’s Luciano Darderi on Saturday. 

On Friday afternoon, 21-year-old Shelton surpassed 22-year-old Brandon Nakashima 7-5, 7-6(9) in a “Next Gen” battle of rising American stars during their first career ATP meeting. Tiafoe defeated a familiar foe in Australian Jordan Thompson, 7-6, 6-4 in River Oaks’ own edition of “Friday Night Lights” to the delight of a packed stadium of American fans. 

The American’s quarterfinal victories will mark the 18th time in the Open Era where two Americans have advanced to the US Clay semifinals. It will also be the seventh time in the last 10 events featuring two American semifinalists. 

Rounding out the other quarterfinal matchups, defending runner-up Etcheverry advanced to the semifinals after leading Michael Mmoh 6-3, 0-1 before Mmoh was forced to retire due to a left adductor injury. In the final quarterfinal match, Darderi routed American Marcos Giron 6-0, 6-4. 

Both semifinal matches will feature first-time meetings between No. 1 Shelton vs. No. 4 Etcheverry and No. 3 Tiafoe vs. Darderi. Take a closer look at each of the compelling matchups ahead of Saturday’s semifinal slate. 

Semifinal #1: Shelton Embraces Debut Clay Contest with Etcheverry

Shelton has experienced a lot of “firsts” this week. In his first appearance at US Clay, he has advanced to his first ATP clay court semifinal on Friday after squaring off against fellow American Brandon Nakashima for the first time, coming out on top 7-5, 7-6(9). In only his second clay court season on tour, 21-year-old Shelton is taking every new opportunity in stride. 

He will face yet another “first” in the semi-finals against the more established and experienced clay court opponent in the fourth seeded  Etcheverry. The 2023 US Clay finalist, Etcheverry now owns a 6-1 lifetime record (86%) at River Oaks heading into the semifinal showdown with Shelton. 

"It will be a great new test for me,” Shelton said in his quarterfinal post-match interview with host Blair Henley. “Classic clay tennis isn't exactly the style I play. I'm sure I’ll see some different looks from Etcheverry than I'm used to and he will see some different things from me that he may not be used to as well. I hope you guys all come out to support us on Saturday.”

The U.S. vs. Argentina matchup will feature a battle of lanky, big-servers between Shelton (6’4”) and Etcheverry (6'5”) who, apart from their height, both possess a sharp contrast in styles that is uniquely representative of their tennis upbringing. Shelton, a former football player with an athletic build and lefty arm capable of lightning-fast forehands and service aces, prefers the faster hard courts he was accustomed to as a young tennis talent growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Etcheverry, who grew up on the slow, heavy red clay in Argentina, has molded a game style well-suited to clay with a high-bouncing serve, loopy and consistent groundstrokes, and tactical variety, leaving little room to poke holes in his game. 

“Etcheverry has a very difficult serve to return - it’s tricky and bounces up pretty high above the shoulder,” Shelton added. “He is rock solid from the baseline and doesn’t make too many tactical mistakes. He has been playing on this surface for so many years and had a great season on clay last year. There are definitely some challenges with Etcheverry that I may not have had in my last two matches against Brandon or Zizou, but there also may be some openings that I didn’t have in my prior matches.” 

Semifinal #2: Tiafoe Two Wins Away from Defending Title

After squeaking out a gritty first round three-set victory over Australian James Duckworth on Thursday night, Frances Tiafoe appears to have turned a corner in both his form and confidence. 

With his quarterfinal win over Thompson, one of the most in-form players of 2024 in singles and doubles, his celebration said it all.

“Really good match tonight. The first set was crucial - I was trailing in the breaker most of the time and played a really good 2nd set. Long two set match and happy to be here in the semis once again. 

“Getting the win over Jordan tonight and coming through in straight sets felt really good tonight,” Tiafoe told Henley in his post-match interview. “I was trailing in the first set tie-breaker most of the time and then thought I played a strong second set. It was a huge confidence boost for me. I feel like my game is slowly coming together again and it’s been great to have my team and so many fans supporting me here this week. Let’s keep it going.”

Tiafoe is now two wins away from becoming the first player to successfully defend his title at River Oaks since fellow American Steve Johnson in 2017-2018. His first obstacle to grabbing the 2024 US Clay trophy lies in the surging Italian clay court specialist, Darderi. 

Darderi has been on a clay court tear thus far in 2024. Despite being the only unseeded player in the semifinal lineup, the Argentine-born is the most in-form clay court player on paper among the River Oaks semi-finalists. With an 11-3 singles record in 2024, he owns the highest season win percentage (77%) of any player in the field and is only one of two players to have won a title already this year. 

As a qualifier earlier this year, he won seven straight matches to advance to the main draw and eventually win the title in Cordoba, Argentina. His journey to the semi-finals hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, however. 

In his first round match, he fought off three match points to overcome American Denis Kudla 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2 to advance to the second round. Next he upset No. 2 Francisco Cerundolo 6-4, 2-6, 7-(6) in the Round of 16 in a 2-hour, 30-minute quintessential clay court slugfest. 

After gutting out two tough three-setters, Darderi dispatched Giron 6-0, 6-4 in the quarterfinals to advance to his second career ATP semifinal (both on clay).

While Tiafoe will certainly be the sentimental crowd favorite, it’s safe to say the Italian will be the more experienced clay court favorite. Among Darderi’s 131 career matches on the ATP Challenger Tour, Darderi has played a staggering 129 of those matches on clay (98%).

How and When to Watch

The semifinal action will begin on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. on Stadium Court. In his title quest to become the second Shelton family champion at River Oaks (his father, Bryan, won here in 1992), No. 1 Shelton will take on No. 4 Etcheverry to kick off Saturday’s schedule.

No. 3 Tiafoe and Darderi will follow immediately after the first semifinal match. Lastly, the doubles final between Will Blumberg and John Peers vs. the winner of No. 4 seeds Max Purcell and Jordan Thompson or N. Sriram Balaji of India and Andre Begemann of Germany not before 4 p.m.

Both the singles semifinals and doubles finals will be broadcast Saturday on the ESPN App. 


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