In a monumental match, Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton face off in the US Open

Two Black men playing in a stadium named after a Black man highlights tennis' burgeoning diversity. 

A monumental tennis match takes place tonight at the U.S. Open when two Black players — Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton — meet in the quarterfinals.

For the first time since 2005, three Americans have reached the quarters. (No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz, an American, and No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic faced off this afternoon.)

Frances Tiafoe (above) will face off against Ben Shelton in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Here, Tiafoe serves against Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic on May 29 at the French Open in Paris. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/AP)

But tonight’s Tiafoe-Shelton match also highlights the continuing diversification of a sport long seen as a rich white man’s game. Here, two of the most exciting players, who happen to be Black men, will meet at 8:15 p.m. at a stadium named in honor of Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion and civil rights supporter. The winner will advance to the semifinals.

“We’re both going to go out, compete, and put on a show,” Tiafoe said at his press availability on Monday. “Two people of color playing in the quarterfinals, in Arthur Ashe? It’s a monumental moment. In the bigger picture, I think tennis is going to win.”

The excitement stretches across the tennis world.

“Today’s match between Tiafoe and Shelton goes beyond Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Kimberly Selden and Virginia Thornton, the cofounders of the Black Girls Tennis Club, said in a statement to theGrio. “We’ve seen the power of representation in sports firsthand with Black Girls Tennis Club. Many of our first participants referenced seeing the movie King Richard in their application, further proving the significance of these moments in media and culture.”

The U.S. Tennis Association, in a March press release, said that people of color are 38% of the tennis-playing public, up from 32.5% in 2019. Of those, 2.3 million are Black players, an increase of 46% over just three years. 

Ben Shelton (above) has breezed through the U.S. Open so far. He faces Frances Tiafoe next. Here, he reacts during the fourth round of his Sunday match against Tommy Paul. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) ranks the 25-year-old Tiafoe at No. 10 and Shelton, 20, at No. 47. Shelton, however, is unseeded at the Open. 

Shelton has made his name as one of the most exciting up-and-coming and powerful players on the circuit. His 6-foot-4 frame unleashes fierce volleys from his left-hand stroke. He smashed a 149-mph ace, the tournament’s fastest, in his match against Tommy Paul. Shelton upset Paul, ranked No. 14 by the ATP, in four sets in the tournament’s fourth round. 

So far, Tiafoe has breezed through the Open, held in Flushing Meadows in New York City’s Queens borough. He’s lost only one set in four matches. Tiafoe became just the third Black male to reach the top 10 in ATP rankings. James Blake did it in 2009, and Ashe before him.

Shelton praised Tiafoe, saying,He’s been like a brother to me since I’ve been on tour, a guy who told me that he believed in me from my first ATP tournament. Just a great guy off the court. But on the court is a nightmare to deal with.”

Other Black players still playing include Carel Ngounoue, Michael Mmoh, and  Christopher Eubanks. Matthew Forbes plays on the junior circuit. 

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