CINCINNATI — An hour into his second Masters 1000 match, 19-year-old Ben Shelton is one game away from beating 2022 French Open finalist Casper Ruud.
That’s when he does something amazing.
At the net, Shelton sees the lob coming, and flies in the direction of the ball. When he slumps towards him, he tilts his racquet between his legs and smashes a tween shot, the ball flying past Ruud towards the end of the court for a winner. Point Shelton.
The crowd erupts for the budding American talent. Laughing, Shelton throws his hands up, shrugging like he has no idea how he shot. The crowd screams. Ruud stands with his hands on his waist, staring in disbelief at where the ball made contact with his side of the pitch.
– Tennis TV (@TennisTV) August 17, 2022
A few winners later, Shelton broke Ruud again to win the match 6-3, 6-3. It took Shelton all 68 minutes, his power, speed and agility leaving Ruud – who is playing the best tennis of his career this year – bewildered.
At net, Ruud told Shelton: “Hey man, I know you’ve played a lot of great games in your career and you’re going to play a lot more, but hopefully this one was one of the best.”
A fan watching the game without any context would think Shelton has been doing this for a while. He looked calm and collected, like it was a typical day in his life.
But life in the summer of 2022 is far from typical for the University of Florida tennis player.
“Do it until you do it, right?” he said after the game, when asked if he felt as calm as he looked. “I didn’t feel calm there, but I was trying to show that I was calm and had things under control.”
Since July, Shelton has reached his first Challenger final (at the Rome Challenger in Georgia), made his ATP debut and won his first ATP match (both at the Atlanta Open against Ramkumar Ramanathan), has earned 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 to beat a top-5 opponent since Andy Roddick in 2001.
And now – a week before his US Open main draw debut – he’s ready for more. Shelton turns professional.
Growing up 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 number 55 Bryan Shelton, now a coach at the University of Florida, tennis was a fundamental part of Ben’s life. His earliest memories include watching his father coach Georgia Tech’s women’s tennis team to an NCAA championship when Ben was just 5 years old.
He had a deep connection and high IQ to sports, but he only really dated his dad about once a month when he was young. Ben was concentrating on another sport: football. He was a quarterback for his college team.
At 12, a “switch flipped” for him. It was like he knew from the start that tennis was what he was supposed to do – and because he knew that, he gave himself time to live his life outside of it. It wasn’t a single training session or a single memory, but when he thought about his future, he saw tennis there and he saw his father coaching him.
Shelton also had a perspective that most young people playing tennis didn’t. Because his father coached tennis in college, he always viewed tennis as a team sport. A way to create a community. A way to make better friends. A way to make his 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 act.
With this perspective, it took off. Bryan taught him early on to focus on the versatility of his game. As a southpaw, Ben had a big serve, but it wasn’t going to be enough. He had to have an aggressive groundstroke and feel comfortable going to the net for a soft touch after a hard shot. He also watched Roger Federer play, not only to mimic his variety of shots, but to understand how he dealt with his emotions on the pitch. Shelton loved everything about Federer and wanted to emulate him.
He was a natural athlete, his quarterback days helping him control his run on the tennis court. And, drawing on his father’s experience, he began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He was starting to win games on the junior circuit.
When he was 16, he remembered thinking it was time to travel abroad – as most juniors have done – to experience playing against some of the best junior players in very different. When he asked his father what he thought, his father said, “Well, are you the best player in the United States?” Ben said, “No, I’m not.” Bryan said, “Why do you need to travel overseas when you’re not the best here?”
Thus, Ben Shelton, has not – and has not to this day – left the United States to play a match of tennis.
Shelton says it was a decision that helped him enormously. Unlike other teenagers, he was not constantly traveling and catching up with his education. He had a routine – practice, school, practice, play, rehearse.
“It was the best thing for me. A lot of the things that were most important to my development in tennis, I was able to grasp them because I stayed in Gainesville and trained with my father,” Shelton said.
Plus, Florida attracts the top juniors anyway, so he could play them all in his home country.
When he turned 17 and started getting college offers, it was a pretty easy choice. He chose the University of Florida. Because he’s been around his father – the head coach – and the university for most of his tennis career, he felt right at home.
𝙊𝙣𝙚 𝙤𝙛 𝙖 𝙠𝙞𝙣𝙙.
— Gators Men’s Tennis (@GatorsMTN) August 17, 2022
His father was tough – he knew it – but the transition was always difficult. He didn’t want people to think his dad wasn’t tough enough on him, or that he was playing higher in the order because his dad was his coach.
“[My dad] was definitely harder on me, he made sure everyone on the team knew I was online, and if I was wrong I was in the same trouble as them, if not more,” Ben says. . “I had to earn my place in the lineup even more than anyone else.
“I would much rather people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re playing so well, you should play 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 well-being, shared meals with him before and after games, and helped him feel part of something bigger. And, with that mindset, he – as a rookie – 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 finished the season as the No. 1 player on the ITA rankings, winning ITA and SEC Player of the Year awards.
After winning, he said to himself, “It was teamwork.
A week before the US Open, Shelton is at his parents’ house in Gainesville when he appears on a Zoom call. He smiles when I congratulate him on his recent success, and even on video the goofy, laid-back approach he shows on the pitch is immediately apparent.
A lot has changed for him in recent weeks. He won $84,000 after his second-round win over Ruud, which he can now accept. He is about to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville, which will always be his home base. But now that he’s turned professional, Shelton will need to travel a lot more – especially overseas – in the coming months. He will continue his college studies online.
Bryan Shelton, who will stay on 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) at his away tournaments. He signed with Roger Federer’s management company, TEAM8. Alessandro Sant Albano, Coco Gauff’s agent, is her agent. His ranking, which was 1,829 last July, is now 171.
“With the momentum I have right now, it’s the right time for me to [go pro] so I don’t have to take a six-month block without playing pro tournaments to make the college season,” Shelton says. “It’s important that I continue to play with this caliber of players.” It will be an adjustment, trips and exchanges with the loneliness of the road, but Shelton says he has a solid base and is ready for the next step.
Last year he made the US Open qualifier, winning the opener before losing to current world number 23 Botic van de Zandschulp. This year, the USTA awarded him a wild card for the main draw. He knows it’s tradition for NCAA champions to get a wild card, but it was still exciting to see his name in the main draw roster.
“Hopefully I’m going in the right direction,” he says.
Shelton wants to be a top 10 player, he wants to go far in 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, he smiles and shakes his head.
“American men’s tennis is in a very good position,” he said. “I’m happy to help, hopefully.”