“Last year at this time, [Ben Shelton] was battling for the number one singles position on his college tennis team [at the University of Florida]. A year later, he’s playing for a spot in the semifinals of the Australian Open.” – Jackson Allen, former collegiate tennis player for the University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia.
The 2023 Australian Open Men’s Singles side has been unique. The top seeds were knocked out early. Next generation (NextGen) stars are on the rise. And for Americans, three men made it to the quarterfinal stages – none older than 26. Ben Shelton (20) and Tommy Paul (25) play on Tuesday night, whereas Sebastian Korda (22) retired in the third set of his quarterfinal match on Monday night. Make no mistake; we could very easily be seeing a changing of the guard as it pertains to American men’s tennis.
Serena Williams’ decision to retire and hang up her racquet signaled an end to the unparalleled dominance of America in women’s tennis in the past two decades. That’s not to say there aren’t others suited to take her spot as the dominant force in American tennis (on the women’s side), as 28-year-old Jessica Pegula has risen to No. 3 in world rankings.
But on the men’s side, it’s been a long while since we’ve had a true competitor for a Grand Slam title. Andy Roddick remained the last American men’s tennis player to win a Slam, way back in 2003 when he claimed a U.S. Open title. Grand slam success, particularly sustained success, has been much harder to come by.
There’s an entire generation of young American tennis fans (anyone under 18) who have yet to see an American male champion. Surely there’s a young American capable of breaking through. Players like Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe have seemed to be the best bets to do so, though young studs like Brandon Nakashima and Jenson Brooksby have also announced their presence to the world on Grand Slam stages within the past year.
But this Australian Open has given way to potentially the next young American star: twenty-year-old Ben Shelton, playing in only his second Grand Slam of his career.
His run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open has led to outspoken confidence from not only the tennis community but the majority of college tennis fans as well.
“We haven’t seen a men’s player make such a drastic leap from the collegiate rankings into the ATP rankings in his first year on tour in the Open Era,” said John Parsons, Host of the College Tennis podcast No-Ad, No Problem. “Shelton’s rapid ascent onto the pro tour is a testament to the success of the college tennis pathway to the [professional ranks]. Shelton, brimming with raw talent but still with areas that need improvement, was able to refine his game, mature as an adult, and develop physically while on campus for eighteen months in Gainesville. That’s a luxury that most players don’t have when they start on the pro circuit at 17 or 18 years old.”
Ben Shelton’s leap to stardom (and a top-40 ATP ranking) may come as a surprise to casual fans of the game, but watchers of college tennis could tell you that this kid was going to be a star as early as last year. A tall lefty, Shelton was equipped with pro-ready weapons as a college sophomore. With a towering serve and powerful groundstrokes, Shelton can play crafty defense as well as attacking offense at the baseline, keeping opponents constantly moving as he peppers shots on either side of the court.
“He’s a big server; he has an unbelievable forehand where he can really put pressure on his opponents and dictate [points],” said Barbara Schett, a former professional tennis player who was once ranked #8 in WTA rankings.
The translatability of Shelton’s weapons has been something that college players have long seen coming. There’s something to be said about a 6’4” athlete with serves capable of topping 135mph.
There is a difference, however, between playing at the collegiate level and the professional level, most notably the atmosphere. Whereas the crowd often cheers and claps between points at the professional level, college tennis matches often feature fully involved crowds with an atmosphere more reminiscent of a basketball or football game. Shelton’s ability to delight a crowd with his emotional responses, such as pumping himself up or flexing, without bordering onto the antics of a Nick Kyrgios, is a proper bridge between the collegiate and pro games.
“The Australian Open fourth round match between two former top-ranked college players (Shelton and former Ohio State star J.J. Wolf) illustrates that the path to the top of the men’s tennis game can run through college campuses. Looking at their success, along with former TCU star and current top-15 ATP-ranked Cam Norrie, a lot of talented juniors might take a second look at heading to college before making the jump to the pros,” said Parsons. “There’s certainly evidence that points to sustained ATP success after some time in school.”
What makes Shelton stand out, particularly against other college-to-pro success stories, is more rooted in where he played in the lineup. College tennis matches are broken into two parts. Three doubles match to take place first, with the school that wins two of the three earning a singular point. The doubles matches are also only a singular set (first to 6). Six singles matches are then played, with each match counting for a singular point. These matches are best two out of three sets. The school with four total points first wins.
Shelton played on Court 5 his freshman year, meaning that he really only had a single year of college experience playing against the best players in college. Shelton also didn’t move up to play on Court 1 his sophomore year until March 4th. A year ago, as of the time of writing this, Ben Shelton won a three-set match (6-4, 0-6, 6-3) against Lleyton Cronje of the University of Central Florida.
One year later and Shelton has a chance to advance to the semifinals of the Australian Open. His emergence has electrified legions of fans of American tennis who eagerly await his next match.
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