Novak Djokovic lifts lid on imitating Ben Shelton as rivalry fires up before Australian Open


Novak Djokovic has fired up a budding rivalry ahead of the Australian Open, going public with the truth behind his decision to steal a young rival’s celebration.

The tennis legend held off a late surge from Ben Shelton to reach the US Open final last year and wasted no time putting the finishing touches on the victory with a pointed celebration.

Djokovic mimed answering and hanging up a phone — the exact gesture Shelton, then 20, had made his own in his breakout tournament.

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“I just love Ben’s celebration,” Djokovic told reporters with a grin afterwards.

“I thought it was very original, and I copied him. I stole his celebration.”

Djokovic hangs up the phone on Shelton at the US Open. Credit: Getty

Shelton said he did not see Djokovic’s move at the time and added he would never tell another player how to celebrate.

“I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want,” the American said at the time.

“You know, 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.”

Whether anyone believed Djokovic simply liked the celebration is up for debate.

But now the Serbian has cleared it up entirely, even pouring some fuel on the fire of a rivalry with a 15-year age gap.

“It was a reaction against him, he did not behave properly, with respect, on court, and before the match,” Djokovic told L’Equipe.

“If anyone one places himself in the unsportsmanlike zone, I react.”

Footage compiled by fans showed Shelton repeatedly making comment about Djokovic’s game — even as early as the first set.

“He doesn’t have the serve … his serve is not working,” Shelton was heard saying.

Djokovic and Shelton, who came through the US college tennis system, had never previously met on court prior to the US Open semi-final and are still yet to play again.

They could, however, meet in the fourth round of the Australian Open later this week after the 16th-seeded Shelton was drawn in the world No.1’s section of the draw.

Shelton must first get through Spanish veteran Roberto Bautista Agut in his opening match while he could face 20th seed Adrian Mannarino or grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka in the third round.

Shelton broke out at the US Open last year. Credit: AP

Djokovic will open his Australian Open title defence against Croatian qualifier Dino Prizmic on Sunday night, with British great Andy Murray looming for a potential third-round clash.

But the 24-time grand slam champion has confidently suggested he is his own biggest threat to winning in Melbourne for an 11th time.

Djokovic has taken out four of the last five Australian Open titles — missing out only in 2022 when he was deported from the country — and won last year despite managing a hamstring injury.

“I’m just hoping I can start the season in a way that I have been starting my seasons, most of my seasons … with a win here in Australia, in Melbourne,” he said.

“My favourite place, no doubt; the court where I’ve done great things and achieved my greatest grand slam results.

“That was one of the best tennis levels that I’ve played, here in Australia last year.”

Djokovic was troubled by a wrist injury when he lost to Australia’s world No.10 Alex de Minaur at the United Cup two weeks ago, ending a staggering 43-match winning streak dating back to 2018 in the country.

The 36-year-old rates this complaint of less consequence than last year’s dodgy hamstring and knows, despite the presence of No.2 Carlos Alcaraz, who calls the shots on Rod Laver Arena.

“Myself always first, and then of course all the other best players in the world,” he said when asked who his biggest threat was.

“Any player is here with, I’m sure, intention to achieve the dream of winning a grand slam.

“Some players are obviously more expected to go further than some others.”

– with AAP




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