As the sun went down on a brutally muggy night in Atlanta late last month, a young American star rose in front of the tour veteran John Isner‘s eyes: 19 years old Ben Shelton. The 6’10” six-time tournament champion and former world No. 8 worked two hours and 24 minutes before clinching a 7-6(8), 4-6, 7-6(3) victory that left a strong win Impression on the Elder Statesman of American tennis.
“He’s an incredible talent. I saw him play in college a year and a half ago and saw how athletic and talented he is,” Isner said. “I’m going to be a big fan of his in the future… To be honest I don’t see myself in the future of beating him. I hope I don’t have to play it again.”
Two weeks before his tour-level debut, Shelton made his first ATP Challenger Tour finals appearance in Rome, Georgia, but was defeated by China’s then-ranked player Wu Yibing.
The teenager built on his NCAA singles title in May, reaching four semifinals of the five Challenger Tour events he has competed in. A week after completing his sophomore season at the University of Florida, the left-hander made the last four at the Challenger Tour event in Little Rock, Arkansas (only the second of his career).
“When I went to Little Rock, I started to believe more in myself and my abilities, that I could compete with the guys who are 150th or 250th in the world, and that gave me a little bit of confidence.”
His current semifinal run in Chicago (he plays Dutchman Gijs Brouwer Saturday) includes a quarter-final win over former world No. 43 Jordan Thompson and will propel Shelton to a career high inside the top 250 in the Pepperstone ATP rankings on Monday.
“(The Challenger Tour) gives you the opportunity to see tennis from guys playing at top 100 level. There are many different types of competitions and it prepares you to play on the ATP Tour. It’s a really good stepping stone and the level isn’t that far from ATP at all.”
Trained by his father Bryan Shelton, a former world No. 55 and current head coach of the University of Florida men’s tennis team, Ben credits his father for much of his collegiate and professional success. Growing up in a tennis family can create immense pressure and high expectations, but it’s been an exciting journey for the Sheltons.
“There was a lot of fun. It’s become a really good situation where (my dad) doesn’t even have to tell me things and I know what he’s thinking or he knows what I’m thinking. He’s really helped me to work on developing my game and not worry about quick wins, but to be there for the long term,” the teenager said.
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The former Florida High School Athletic Association singles champion lived in Atlanta until he was 10 years old. At this point the family moved to Gainesville, Florida. So it was fitting that his first tour-level win came last month in the Georgia capital, where he clinched out Indians Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 7-5.
Known for his explosive serve, athleticism and firepower, the collegiate star is preparing for the two biggest tournaments of his life after receiving wild cards to the ATP Masters 100 event in Cincinnati and the USA US Open.
Shelton played in the US Open Qualifying last year where he was edged out by eventual quarter-finalist Botic Van de Zandschulp.
“I’m really excited, I was lucky enough to play the qualifiers last year and it was a great experience to get my feet wet. I’m glad USTA was able to help me and I’m grateful they gave me a wildcard.”