After falling to Ben Shelton at this year’s Australian Open, vanquished Alexei Popyrin did his best to sum up the promise of the 20-year-old that had just taken him down in straight sets.
“Honestly if this is the way he plays day in, day out, the guy is Top 10 in six months,” Popyrin deadpanned.
Welcome to the rocketing rise of a southpaw with a golden arm, oodles of charm and a competitive motor that bodes well for the future of American tennis.
And that serve? Jaw-dropping.
“Shelton’s got so much fire power,” said Marcos Giron, who earned a victory over Shelton at Delray Beach in February. “When he serves it seems like he’s hitting out of a tree.”
He also comes with a pedigree.
The son of former ATP pro and current University of Florida head coach Bryan Shelton, Ben won the 2022 NCAA singles championship while competing for his father. Since then, the mop-topped, muscular Shelton has taken his talents to the tour with great success.
Great? That’s an understatement…
Less than a year ago, Shelton was ranked outside of the Top 500, still in college, and not even a blip on the radar screen of fans who follow the tour.
This week at the BNP Paribas Open he’s the ATP’s 41st-ranked player, and a crucial part of a blossoming crop of young men that hail from the United States.
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 5, 2023
Twenty percent of the ATP’s Top 50 is currently made up of American men, and even though Shelton wasn’t ticketed to be a part of that equation this time last year, he’s very much an integral part of Team USA’s revival story at the moment.
“I think there’s a lot of hope for American tennis,” Shelton said in January, while in the process of becoming the youngest American man to reach a major quarterfinal since Andy Roddick in 2002. “I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”
The stats don’t lie motif doesn’t stop there: by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal in the year after winning his NCAA singles title, Shelton became the first player to achieve that laudable feat since the legendary Arthur Ashe in 1966.
Ben Shelton 🤝 Arthur Ashe
— USTA (@usta) February 8, 2023
“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” he said. “I didn’t believe it until I looked it up.”
At 6’4” and 195 pounds, Shelton cuts a menacing figure on court. The thunder that emanates from his befuddling first serve is undeniable, as his athleticism. For a big man he’s surprisingly light on his feet.
“He moves really well for his size,” Giron says, adding: “He has a tremendous amount of action on his slice and kick serves, and he’s also fearless – on big points he’s gonna go for it. He loves the moment and he has big belief in himself and it makes him dangerous.”
But the intangibles are what might eventually set Shelton apart from his peers. The ATP Tour is long on gifted athletes who can whack the fuzz off a tennis ball, but how many of them are able to fine-tune their mental game in a way that ensures their skill sets parlay supreme success?
Shelton is aware of the mind-body connection in a sport that is as mentally taxing as it is physically. Already he’s embracing – and excelling in – that department.
“I’ve learned that I have the ability to be really tough on the court, to stay tough for five sets,” he said in Australia. “I’ve kind of proven to myself that I can hang with a lot of people for extended periods of time out on the court.
“I’m taking that as a huge positive, not just my tennis level but my mentality out on the court.”
When it comes to Shelton’s career arc, it’s early days, but all signs point to a future that mirrors the current trend in American men’s tennis. There is an air of anticipation in the California desert, that a new era for is just beginning for the stars and stripes.
The spotlight will be firmly focused on Shelton as he takes the court on Thursday in Tennis Paradise, but in his head, it will be business as usual.
“I’m just trying to be the best version of myself, and whatever that looks like at the end of this year, at the end of next year, if I know that I left it all on the table that year and I gave it everything I had and did everything that I could to get myself ready for tournaments, then I’ll be happy with it,” he says.