Novak Djokovic said he did it out of admiration.
Ben Shelton said he took it as a compliment.
Bryan Shelton, Ben’s father and coach, sees it differently.
When the veteran Djokovic imitated his son’s now-signature celebration immediately after beating the young player in the U.S. Open semifinals last week, the former pro player and college coach saw nothing but disrespect.
“He wanted to mock Ben at the end,” Bryan Shelton told GQ magazine. “It wasn’t something he was doing just to copy Ben. It was to mock him.”
Ben Shelton, 20, was a member of the Florida Gators team that won the national championship in 2021 and won the NCAA men’s singles title in 2022. His father was the Gators coach then and now serves as Ben’s full-time coach.
The unseeded U.S. player made waves at Flushing Meadows, advancing to his first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 victory over fellow American Frances Tiafoe. Following match point in the quarterfinal, Shelton pantomimed answering a telephone, then slamming down the receiver to indicate the conversation was over.
He later told reporters the celebration was his way of “saying I’m dialed in” and said it was also a tribute to his friend and fellow former Florida athlete Grant Holloway, who last month won his third straight world title in the 110-meter hurdles.
That celebration, as well as his play throughout the tournament, garnered plenty of attention for Shelton going into his match against Djokovic, who was merely looking to set an Open-era record for Grand Slam titles. The kid took the living legend to a tiebreaker in the third set but ultimately saw his remarkable run end with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) loss.
Djokovic later told reporters he meant no harm by mimicking his opponent after the match — he simply liked the move and wanted to try it for himself.
“I just love Ben’s celebration. I thought it was very original,” he said. “And I copied him. I stole his celebration.”
The younger Shelton took Djokovic’s actions in stride.
“I don’t like when I’m on social media and I see people telling me how I can celebrate or can’t celebrate,” he told reporters afterward. “I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want. 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.”
His father/coach, however, thought Djokovic’s behavior was unbecoming for someone who would go on to win his record 24th Grand Slam title two days later.
“That’s too bad, for that to come from such a great champion,” Bryan Shelton told GQ of Djokovic.