No matter who was to win Tuesday’s US Open quarterfinals match between Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton, history was going to be made: For the first time, two Black men faced off in the match.
It also was the first time since 2008 that two Black men played each other at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s been nearly two decades since an American male has won tennis’ US Open. And while much of the focus has been on whether 2023 will be the year that drought finally ends, tennis fans are taking a moment to savor this historic match up.
“This is something special, a cosmic event,” Art Carrington, a former professional tennis player who now coaches the sport, told CNN before the match.
Tiafoe and Shelton’s personalities, he said, “are going to enrich the game.”
The match between the two rising tennis stars has also renewed focus on Black men playing tennis. Tiafoe, 25, and Shelton, 20, faced each other at a stadium christened after the Black tennis legend who broke barriers in the game.
Arthur Ashe was the first African American man to be ranked No. 1 in tennis and the first to win numerous titles in the sport, including a singles title at the US Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon. He was also the first Black American to play on the United States Davis Cup team.
Carrington, who was once Ashe’s practice partner, told CNN it is important for younger generations to see Black men excelling at tennis.
“We got to have tennis where it’s visible, where people can see the (Black) people that are playing,” he said.
He also said while people know the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ path to tennis, “we just don’t hear enough family stories about African American men. This is a high point.”
Both Tiafoe and Shelton were surrounded by the sport at a young age.
A child of Sierra Leonean immigrants, Tiafoe and his family lived at a junior tennis champion center where his father worked in maintenance. A few years later, he enrolled in a tennis clinic at the center.
In 2022, he became the first Black American man to reach a US Open semifinal since Ashe in 1972.
Shelton is following in the footsteps of his father, Bryan, a tennis champion who won two professional titles and played on the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour.
Earlier this year, Shelton’s father resigned from coaching at the University of Florida to coach his son in professional tennis.
Carrington said for young Black Americans, getting exposure to tennis is essential for the sport. It’s up to the older generations, he said, to pass down their love for the game.
But ahead of Tuesday’s match, Carrington said if he were coaching Tiafoe and Shelton, he would tell them not to focus on the weight of this historic moment.
“Try to enjoy yourself,” he said. “Don’t play with stress. Let the stress go.”
CNN’s Ben Church contributed to this report.