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

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

That’s when he does something incredible.

At the net, Shelton sees the lob coming, and takes off in the direction of the ball. When it plummets toward him, he angles his racket between his legs and smashes a tweener shot, the ball traveling past Ruud toward the far end of the court for a winner. Point Shelton.

The crowd erupts for the budding American talent. Chuckling, Shelton throws his hands in the air, shrugging as though he has no idea how he made the shot. The crowd howls. Ruud stands with his hands on his waist, staring incredulously at the spot where the ball made contact with his side of the court.

A couple of winners later, Shelton breaks Ruud again to win the match 6-3, 6-3. It took Shelton all of 68 minutes, his power, speed and agility leaving Ruud — who is playing the best tennis of his career this year — flummoxed.

At the net, Ruud says to Shelton, “Hey man, I know you have played a lot of great matches in your career and you’re going to play many more, but I hope that this was one of the better ones.”

A fan watching the match without any 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 has been far from typical for the University of Florida tennis player.

“Fake it till you make it, right?” he says after the match, when asked if he felt as composed as he looked. “I wasn’t feeling the calm out there, but I was trying to portray that I was calm and I had things under 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 against Ramkumar Ramanathan), secured his first top-100 victory (over No. 56 Lorenzo Sonego in the first round in Cincinnati) and then his first top-5 victory, all in the span of two months. He became the youngest American man to beat a top-5 opponent since Andy Roddick in 2001.

And now — a week before his US Open main draw debut — he is ready for more. Shelton is going pro.

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

He had a profound connection and a high IQ for the sport, but he only really hit around with his father once a month or so as a youngster. Ben’s focus was on another sport: football. He was a quarterback for his middle school team.

At age 12, a “switch flipped” for him. It was as though he knew all along that tennis was what he was meant to do — and because he knew that, he was giving himself time to live life outside of it. It wasn’t a single practice session or a single memory, but when he considered his future, he saw tennis in it, and he saw his father coaching him.

Shelton also had a perspective that most youngsters playing tennis didn’t. Because his father was a college tennis coach, he always thought of tennis as a team sport. A way to build community. A way to make best friends. A way to make his teammates proud. And the individual elements of the sport — problem solving during a match, working on his mental game — that was a part of the sport, but not the main act.

With that perspective, he took off. Bryan taught him early on to focus on making his game as versatile as possible. As a left-hander, Ben had a big serve, but that was not going to be enough. He needed to have an aggressive ground stroke, and feel comfortable going to the net for a gentle touch after a powerful shot. He also watched Roger Federer play, not just to mimic his variety of shots, but to pick up on how he handled his emotions on the court. Shelton loved everything about Federer and wanted to emulate him.

He was a natural athlete, his quarterback days helping him with his controlled running on the tennis court. And, with his father’s experience, he began putting the puzzle pieces together. He was beginning to win matches on the junior circuit.

When he was 16, he remembered thinking it was time to travel abroad — as most juniors did — to experience playing against some of the best junior players in vastly different conditions. When he asked his dad for his thoughts, his dad said, “Ben, are you the best player in the U.S.?” Ben said, “No, I am not.” Bryan said, “Why do you need to travel abroad when you’re not the best here?”

So, Ben Shelton, did not — and has not to date — left the U.S. to play a tennis match.

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

“It was what was best for me. A lot of the things that were most important to my development in tennis, I was able to key in on because I stayed in Gainesville and trained with my dad,” Shelton says.

Plus, Florida attracts the best juniors anyway, so he was getting to play them all right in his home state.

When he turned 17 and began receiving offers from universities, it was a rather easy choice. He picked the University of Florida. Because he has been around his dad — the head coach — and the university most of his tennis career, he felt right at home.

His father was tough — he knew that — but the transition was still hard. He didn’t want people to think his dad wasn’t hard enough on him, or that he was getting to play higher up the order because his dad was his coach.

“[My dad] was definitely tougher on me, he made sure everyone on the team knew that I was in line, and if I messed up I was getting in trouble the same as them if not more,” Ben says. “I had to earn my spot in the lineup even more so than anyone else.

“I would much rather people say to me that ‘Oh, you’re playing so well, you should be playing higher in the lineup’ than, ‘Why are you playing so high in the lineup, is it because your dad is the coach?'”

He got everything he knew to be true. A community — teammates who cared about his wellbeing, who would share meals with him before and after matches, and who helped him feel like he was a part of something bigger. And, with that mindset he — as a freshman — helped Florida win its first ever NCAA men’s tennis championship.

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

After winning, he thought: “This was a team effort.”

A week before the US Open, Shelton is at his parents’ house in Gainesville when he pops on a Zoom call. He grins when I congratulate him on his recent success, and even on video the goofy and laid-back approach he shows on the court is immediately apparent.

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

Bryan Shelton, who will stay behind to coach at the University of Florida, will still be his primary coach, but Ben will also work with a traveling coach (USTA’s Dean Goldfine) during his away tournaments. He has signed with Roger Federer’s management firm, TEAM8. Alessandro Sant Albano, Coco Gauff’s agent, is his agent. His ranking, which was 1,829 last July, is now 171.

“With the momentum I have going right now, it’s a good time for me to [go pro] so I don’t have to take a six-month block of not playing pro tournaments to do the college season,” Shelton says. “It’s important that I continue playing these caliber of players.” It will be an adjustment, traveling and dealing 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 qualifiers, winning the first match before losing to current world No. 23 Botic van de Zandschulp. This year, the USTA awarded him a wild card to the main draw. He knows it’s tradition for NCAA champions to get a wild card, but it was still thrilling to see his name in 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 in the Grand Slams, he says. Some experts are saying that Ben Shelton is going to save American tennis. That he could become the first American man to win a major title since Roddick won the US Open in 2003. When asked what he thinks about this, he smiles and shakes his head.

“American men’s tennis is in a very good place as it is,” he says. “I am happy to hopefully help.”

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