ATLANTA — The phrase “the future of American men’s tennis” inspires mostly moans these days, as 74 Grand Slams have come and gone since Andy Roddick won the US Open trophy in 2003.
Invariably, the burden of this drought falls on young Americans who rise quickly in the rankings, begin to make an impact on the ATP Tour, and then come up against the Grand Slam wall that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have erected over the past two decades. .
So let’s not burden Ben Shelton, who is only 19, with that kind of albatross. But we can say this: The rising University of Florida junior, who won the NCAA singles title in May, is very, very good. And he’s on the precipice of a career-defining summer that just might put him on a very different trajectory from the one that seemed to him traced just a few weeks ago.
Shelton, whose father Bryan is a former top-100 player and is now Florida’s head coach, played his first ATP-level match Tuesday, at the Atlanta Open. He won it in fairly straightforward fashion, beating veteran pro Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 7-5 and letting out a loud cry as he swept away an overhead on match point.
“It’s really special,” said Shelton, who was just blocks from the courts of his childhood at Georgia Tech, where his father coached until 2012.
But with every tournament he’s been in, the bigger story is that Shelton himself could be special, and his performance could very well force some decisions about his future much faster than expected.
As of now, Shelton is expected to return to Florida in the fall. But after performing well in several Challenger-level events and impressively winning his first round here, he is on the fast track to the top 200 in the world rankings. Brad Gilbert, the longtime pro player, coach and ESPN analyst, wrote on Twitter that Shelton will be “top 50 for sure”. And the US Open has already granted him a wildcard in the main draw, which would be a guaranteed $75,000 prize in the first round – if he turns pro.
“It will definitely be a discussion later this summer with my parents and my team and we will make a decision based on my development and what will be best for me, not only on the pitch but also off the pitch.”, Shelton said. “There are no real results or standings that will materially influence my decision.”
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There are, of course, many things that could bring Shelton back to college. It’s a comfortable place for him, he wants to finish his degree in finance and it’s certainly a big deal to play for his father in one of the most successful teams in the country.
But as he goes through the process this summer, it certainly seems possible that Shelton and those around him will conclude he’s just too good to go back to school.
“I’m just a college guy having fun here,” he said. “I don’t put too much stress on my games. I’m focused and want to do the best I can, but it’s not do or die for me here.
Shelton will get a better idea of where he stands on Thursday when he takes on No. 25-ranked John Isner, who has won the Atlanta event six times. After going 11-4 against pros ranked mostly in the 150-300 range, this will be Shelton’s first chance to see how he stacks up against a top-100 player.
But no matter how it goes against Isner – and it’s certainly a major step up in the class for someone who hasn’t turned pro yet – it’s Shelton’s explosive play at 6ft 3in that draws so much attention. the attention than the results.
With a big left-handed serve averaging 126 mph against Ramanathan and the ability to land a massive kick on his first and second serves, Shelton already has a legit weapon that can win him games. But he also seems to be very solid on his two groundstrokes and is very comfortable getting into the net to finish points behind his power and slice. Shelton won 15 of 22 points when he came in for a volley or a pass.
“I love going to the net, being able to use some of my hand skills, my athletic skills and going up to get the ball back (to put away overhead) is one of my favorite things to do,” Shelton said. “I could have done a better job today incorporating my serve and volley and scoring faster, but I think that’s a big part of my game and a big part of my development.”
Only the toughest of die-hard tennis fans would have watched Shelton on a Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta, but it was easy to see why he’s been a dominant college player, going 37-5 in singles play last season. It was also huge publicity for other tournaments this summer and fall to give him a wildcard entry, as Atlanta did. Every tournament wants to brag about having helped launch a great career.
It’s far too early to predict that Tuesday’s game was the debut of America’s next great champion, but at the very least Shelton looks set for an interesting and successful professional career. Shelton may have some things that bring him back to college for another year, but if he continues to play the way he has for the past few weeks, it will be hard to turn down the opportunities he is creating for himself right now.
Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken