Pundits used to fill airtime whining about the demise of American men’s tennis after Andy Roddick. I hope this trend is dead. Because every summer I drop by and a new kid tears up the hard court season and plants himself firmly in tennis’s upper middle class.
There are currently 13 Americans in the top 100, eight of whom are under the age of 25 with plenty of room for improvement. Taylor Fritz, Indian Wells Champion and frequent joke apologistleads the pack at No. 13, with a diverse group in tow including but not limited to the infinitely endearing Frances Tiafoeathletic grinder Tommy Paul, servebot Reilly Opelka, serve-and-volley throwback Maxime Cressy, and trickster demon Jenson Brooksby. Some of these guys even went pro after a stint in college. The latest such case could be Ben Shelton, reigning NCAA singles champion at the University of Florida, who made a quick exploratory leap into the big leagues and already destroyed the fifth player in the world at this week’s Cincinnati Open.
A 19-year-old left-hander whose father Bryan is a former world No. 55 and current men’s tennis coach in Florida, Ben has all the tools he needs. He’s got that roughly ideal 6ft 4 physique that’s optimized for mobility and big serves. He has the light footed movement and soft hands to support a wide game on all courts, and his two groundstrokes are too solid to attack. His shot selection leans toward fat. In addition to good results, these qualities also add up to high entertainment. (That’s a relief, because we’ve just survived a generation of American no-backhand stiffs who wanted to prove that those qualities — winning and watching — don’t always overlap.)
Young Ben is also climbing the ranks pretty darn fast by playing a surprising amount of tennis. In July, he played through the qualifying rounds to reach the finals of the Challenger in Rome, Georgia. he made another Challenger final in Chicago; In between, he narrowly lost in three sets to John Isner at the Atlanta Open, where he earned his first win at the pro level. The former standard-bearer of American men’s tennis, 37-year-old Isner is a believer, and just old enough not to be a frequent victim: “Honestly, I don’t plan on hitting him in the future. I hope I don’t have to play it again.”
Shelton’s efforts in July were enough to earn him a wild card to the Cincinnati, a 1,000 level event that marked a significant leap in the level of competition as he took on the best players alive. Shelton eliminated the talented, albeit collapsing, world No. 56 Lorenzo Sonego in three sets. His opponent in the second round was by far the best player he’s ever faced in formal competition: world No. 5 and French Open finalist Casper Ruud. Ben defeated him 6-3, 6-3 with the kind of explosive punches that will hopefully become his trademark as a pro:
Father and son think it’s cute too. “I still look at him as a kid and you see him playing these grown men,” Bryan said Cincinnati.com, with his son going into the third round. He added, referring to his own results in Cincinnati: “I think the second round is the best I’ve ever done. I knew what you were getting at. I think we’ll be able to say that about a lot of different things in the future, but he hasn’t won any tour titles yet. I’ve won two.” Ben said, “I know he has two top five wins and I only have one. He has me in that category.” Their surreal week ended Thursday night when Shelton was defeated 6-0, 6-2 by world No. 11 Cam Norrie 6-0, 6-2 in the third round. But soon enough, Ben could leave dad’s small college team to hunt the bag.
After all, the younger Shelton won $29,485 with his summer win in Cincinnati, plus $84,510 for his third-round performance this week. He’ll also get the wildcard into the US Open main draw, normally granted to the collegiate singles champion, where a first-round appearance pays $75,000 in prize money – but in predictably silly NCAA fashion, Ben can take all of the wins of the Bag the year Öonly if he loses his high school diploma. Ben said he will decide his fate sometime before the Open. Admittedly, I have a hard time imagining a 19-year-old going back to class after beating the world’s No. 5 tennis player.