Ben Shelton is poised to be the next big thing in American men’s tennis

CINCINNATI β€” An hour into his second Masters 1000 match, 19-year-old Ben Shelton is a game away from beating the 2022 French Open finalist Kasper Ruud.

Then he does something incredible.

At net, Shelton sees the lob coming and takes off for the ball. As it rushes at him, he wedges his racquet between his legs and smashes in a tweener shot, sending the ball flying past Ruud to the far end of the court for a winner. Point Shelton.

The crowd erupts for the rising American talent. Giggling, Shelton throws his hands in the air and shrugs like he has no idea how he took the shot. The crowd howls. Ruud stands with his hands on his hips and stares in disbelief at where the ball touched his side of the court.

A few winners later, Shelton Ruud breaks again and wins the match 6-3, 6-3. Shelton clocked a full 68 minutes, his power, speed and agility leaving Ruud – who is playing the best tennis of his career this year – stunned.

At net, Ruud tells Shelton, “Hey man, I know you’ve played a lot of great matches in your career and will play many more, but I hope this was one of the better ones.”

A fan watching the game out of context would think Shelton has been doing this for a while. He looked calm and composed, like this was a typical day in his life.

But life in the summer of 2022 was anything but typical for the University of Florida tennis player.

“Fake it ’til you make it, huh?” he says after the match when asked if he felt as composed as he looked. “I didn’t feel the calm out there, but I tried to show that I was calm and in control.”

Since July, Shelton has reached his first Challenger final (at Georgia’s Rome Challenger), made his ATP debut, and won his first ATP match (both at the Atlanta Open vs Ramkumar Ramanathan), secured his first top 100 win (over No. 56 Lorenzo Sonego in the first round in Cincinnati) and then his first top five win, all in the space of two months. He became the youngest American to defeat a top-five opponent since then Andy Roddick in 2001.

And now – a week before his US Open main draw debut – he’s ready for more. Shelton turns pro.

Raised in Gainesville, Florida, Shelton took an unusual path to tennis. He didn’t play regularly or seriously until he was 12 years old. As the son of former world No. 55 Bryan Shelton, now a coach at the University of Florida, tennis was a fundamental part of Ben’s life. One of his earliest memories is of his father coaching the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team to an NCAA championship when Ben was just 5 years old.

He had a deep connection and a high IQ for the sport, but as a youngster he only saw his father about once a month. Ben focused on another sport: soccer. He was a quarterback for his middle school team.

At the age of 12, a “switch flipped” for him. It was like he’d known all along that tennis was what he was supposed to be doing – and knowing that, he gave himself time to live a life outside of it. It wasn’t a single training session or a single memory, but as he thought about his future, he saw tennis in it and he saw his father coaching him.

Shelton also had a perspective that most tennis players didn’t have. Since his father was a college tennis coach, he always viewed tennis as a team sport. A way to build community. A way to make best friends. A way to make your teammates proud. And the individual elements of the sport – problem solving during a game, working on your mental game – that was part of the sport but not the main thing.

With this perspective he took off. Bryan taught him from an early age to focus on diversifying his game as much as possible. Being left-handed, Ben had a big serve, but that wasn’t going to be enough. He had to have an aggressive groundstroke and be comfortable going to the net for a soft touch after a powerful shot. He also watched Roger Federer to play, not just to emulate his variety of shots, but to capture how he manages his emotions on the court. Shelton loved everything about Federer and wanted to emulate him.

A natural athlete, his quarterback days helped his controlled stride on the tennis court. And with his father’s experience, he began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He started winning games at the junior circuit.

By the time he was 16, he recalled it was time to travel abroad – as most juniors did – to see him play against some of the best junior players in vastly different conditions. When he asked his father about his thoughts, his father said, “Ben, are you the best player in the US?” Ben said, “No, I’m not.” Bryan said, “Why do you have to travel abroad if you’re not the best here?”

So Ben Shelton didn’t leave the US – and hasn’t left to this day – to play a tennis match.

Shelton says it was a decision that helped him immensely. Unlike other teenagers, he wasn’t constantly traveling and was catching up on his education. He had a routine – practice, school, practice, play, repeat.

“That was the best thing for me. I was able to incorporate a lot of the things that were most important to my development in tennis because I stayed in Gainesville and trained with my dad,” says Shelton.

Also, Florida attracts the best juniors anyway, so he was able to play against them in his home state.

When he turned 17 and started getting offers from universities, it was a pretty easy choice. He chose the University of Florida. Being with his father – the head coach – and the university for most of his tennis career made him feel at home.

His father was tough – he knew it – but the transition was tough nonetheless. He didn’t want people to think his dad wasn’t hard enough on him or that he was going up the ladder because his dad was his coach.

“[My dad] was definitely harder on me, he made sure everyone on the team knew I was in line and if I messed up I got the same problems as them, if not more,” says Ben. β€œI had to earn my place in the lineup more than anyone else.

“I’d rather people say to me, ‘Oh you play so well, you should play higher up the lineup’ than ‘why are you playing so high up the lineup, it’s because your dad is the coach is? ?'”

He has everything he knew to be true. A community – teammates who looked after his well-being, who shared meals with him before and after games, and who helped him feel a part of something bigger. And with that attitude, he helped Florida as a freshman win their first-ever NCAA championship in men’s tennis.

A year later, in May 2022, he became NCAA men’s singles champion, beating Denmark’s August Holmgren for the title. He finished the season as the No. 1 player in the ITA rankings and received ITA and SEC Player of the Year awards.

After the win, he thought, “It was a team effort.”

A week before the US Open, Shelton is at his parents’ house in Gainesville when he makes a Zoom call. He grins when I congratulate him on his recent success, and even on video you can immediately see the goofy and relaxed manner he displays on the pitch.

A lot has changed for him in the past few weeks. He won $84,000 after beating Ruud in the second round, which he can now accept. He’s about to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville, which will still be his home base. But now that he’s turned pro, Shelton will need to travel a lot more — especially abroad — in the coming months. He will continue his college education online.

Bryan Shelton, who remains as coach at the University of Florida, will continue to be his main coach, but Ben will also work with a traveling coach (USTAs Dean Goldfine) during his away tournaments. He has signed with Roger Federer’s management company TEAM8. Alessandro Sant Albano, Coco Gauff‘s agent, is his agent. His ranking, which was 1,829 in July last year, now stands at 171.

“With the momentum I have right now, it’s a good time for me [go pro] So I don’t have to go six months out of professional tournaments to get through college season,” Shelton says. “It’s important that I continue to play against this caliber of players.” It will be adjustment, travel and business with the loneliness of the road, but Shelton says he has a solid foundation and is ready for the next step.

Last year he played in the US Open qualifier and won the first match before losing to current world No. 23 Botic van de Zandschulp. That year, the USTA awarded him a wild card for the main draw. He knows it’s traditional for NCAA champions to get a wild card, but it was still exciting to see his name on the main draw list.

“I hope I’m going in the right direction,” he says.

Shelton wants to be a top 10 player, he wants to go deep into the Grand Slams, he says. Some pundits say Ben Shelton will save American tennis. That he could become the first American to win a Major title since Roddick won the US Open in 2003. When asked what he thinks of it, he smiles and shakes his head.

“American men’s tennis is in a very good position as it is,” he says. “I look forward to hopefully being able to help.”

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