Although it finished in a rather familiar fashion, 2022 might be known as the year Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune officially arrived as generational talents and, if you’re looking for next year’s version; back the truck up on American sensation, Ben Shelton.
Son of American professional, two-time titlist, and former world number 55, Bryan Shelton, 19-year-old Ben has had a simply remarkable few months.
This week, Shelton woke up as the newest member of the world’s top 100 (97) having defeated Australian Aleksander Vukic in the final of a Challenger at the New South Welshman’s former alma mater, the University of Illinois.
The 0-6, 6-2, 6-3 win was Shelton’s fifteenth on the trot and earned him the title of being the youngest men’s player ever to win three Challenger tour events in a row as well as guaranteed entry into the 2023 Australian Open.
It was only five months ago that Shelton was crowned the NCAA singles national champion as a University of Florida sophomore.
Only 12 weeks ago did he forego his college NCAA eligibility to turn pro. Allowing the former Florida Gator to sign with Roger Federer’s TEAM8 management group – scouted by Alessandro Barel Di Sant Albano the same agent that identified Coco Gauff – and clothing affiliate, On.
What cannot be overstated is the fact that the American has entered the top 100 in less than five months since he began to focus on tour-level tennis full-time.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t always apparent that the left-handed Shelton would follow in his father's footsteps.
Speaking to the ATP, father Bryan revealed that Ben spent many of his childhood years gallivanting around Georgia Tech University, where Bryan was the women’s tennis head coach, hoping to grow up to be a quarterback.
“That’s what he wanted to do. He knew all the college players, not just at Georgia Tech but across the country. He knew all the pros. He knew different formations. He just knew so much about the game and was just such a fan of it,” Bryan said.
By all reports, Ben was a lover of team sports and football satisfied that wonderfully.
Yet the tide started to turn when Bryan accepted the head men’s coach position at the University of Florida in 2012.
Shortly after that, aged 12, Ben made the decision to focus solely on tennis.
“Obviously football is pretty hard on your body,” Shelton said.
“I don’t know how much longer my mom wanted me to keep taking hits and obviously with my dad playing pro and being a collegiate coach, there was definitely a lot of upside to choosing a sport that he’s an expert in.”
As a junior, Shelton was elite but not all-conquering. He peaked at number 3 in the under-18s USTA Boy’s division although his ITF career was limited as his father encouraged him to become the best in America before worrying about the rest of the world.
Following high school, Shelton committed to his father’s University of Florida Gators team in 2020 where his sister is also a member of the women’s team.
His freshman year was a sign of things to come. Shelton, playing number 5 in the singles lineup, went 10-2 for the year and won the NCAA team championship-clinching match for his dad’s team to bring the Gators their first national championship.
However, it was during his sophomore year when Shelton really took things up a notch. Taking the mantle as the number one player, Shelton dominated the college scene. He finished the year 37-5, the NCAA singles champion, number 1 in the ITA rankings, and was named the 2022 ITA National Player of the Year.
For his efforts, Shelton earned a US Open main draw wildcard and quickly turned his attention to professional events already ranked 547 after some ITF appearances, albeit while unable to earn prizemoney as an NCAA athlete.
In the following weeks, Shelton sky-rocketed up the rankings after making a semi-final in his second-ever Challenger event at Little Rock; a final from qualifying in Rome, Georgia, and taking John Isner to three brutal sets in his ATP main draw appearance in Atlanta.
Post-match Isner quickly opined that he doesn’t like his chances to beat Shelton next time they play.
Not done there, the confident big serving lefty then defeated Casper Ruud 6-3, 6-3 in the opening round of the Cincinnati masters as a wildcard to formally announce himself as a member of generation-next, if he hadn’t already.
It was at this point that Shelton announced he would turn professional and continue his college education online. Perhaps a hint that his grounded family values won’t allow the young American to get too far ahead of himself.
Despite his rapid rise, Shelton remains a process-driven player, trying not to get caught up in the moment and instead focusing on the traits that will leave him best placed to remain competitive throughout the good weeks and the bad.
“It starts with the mentality of what you do in between the points,” Shelton said, in a podcast with Challenger tour broadcaster Mike Cation after his win over Vukic this weekend.
“I’m not dwelling on every single point whether I win or lose. If I make a bad error, I can laugh it off… I’m just taking everything that I can get right now, enjoying everything that I have, and not stressing too much.”
In a sport where people love to compare players to stars of generations past, Shelton appears to have his own identity and his own style and flair.
And if he can crack the top 100 in half a season, imagine what he can do in 2023.