Ben Shelton's Excellent Timing
For the second time this year, he surprises in a major
Ben Shelton has been late to the ball in some ways. Despite his family’s deep connections to tennis, he did not start playing it seriously until age 11. He did not travel outside the United States or play a tournament on grass or clay until he was 20.
But he is well ahead of schedule when it comes to what matters most in his new profession: Grand Slam tournaments.
In his first Australian Open this January, he rode a great draw and big game to the quarterfinals. Seven months of struggles later, he is into the semifinals of the US Open and preparing to face none other than Novak Djokovic.
For me, Shelton’s unseeded run in New York is as big a surprise as his unseeded run down under considering how few matches he won in the interval as he strained to adapt to new surfaces, new cities and new expectations.
But Shelton, with his big-bang serve and extroverted personality, clearly relishes the big stage and the full stadium, just as his father Bryan suspected he would when Ben left college tennis behind for good last year.
On Tuesday, Shelton and fellow American Frances Tiafoe were the main event in the night session, and though only Tiafoe had been in that situation before in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Shelton handled it with more aplomb.
“Some people shy away from competition, and Ben never did,” Bryan Shelton told me last year. “I always say he’s like a Labrador retriever: You throw the ball, he’s going to run and go get it. And if you throw it again, he’s going to run and go get it again and again and again. So, you know, he has a passion for it.”
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When we spoke, father and son were heading their separate ways. Bryan Shelton had coached Ben throughout his youth and again at the University of Florida where Ben won both the NCAA men’s singles title and the decisive point that secured Florida the team championship.
But in June, Bryan left his post at Florida to resume working full-time with Ben, this time on tour. Bryan knew the drill: he played professionally from 1989 to 1997, reaching a career high of 55 in singles and the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1994.
“Nobody knows or understands my game better,” Ben Shelton told me.
But the 6-foot-1 Bryan, a solid professional who played right-handed, never had the tools that Ben possesses with his strapping 6-foot-4 frame and mammoth left-handed serve.
“He’s just a different animal than I was, and I try not to compare too much what I did and just help him along the way, but I also realize he’s got a much higher ceiling,” Bryan Shelton told me in a piece for the Times.
In Ben’s first full tour season, that serve has rapidly become one of the most intimidating shots in the game. He is still trying to figure out how to harness all of its potential: He ranks just 25th on the ATP Tour in percentage of service games won at 83.9%. But to see him bend low and then explode upward with full rotation is to witness a force of nature. A former Pop Warner quarterback, Shelton has fine throwing mechanics that have carried over, and though he can generate speed – see his 149 mile-per-hour efforts against Tommy Paul – he can also generate wicked spin: carving second serves that kick above opponents’ shoulders.
Tiafoe, a big server himself, struggled to cope but also managed to convert four of his six break points, which would often be a winning strike rate at these high tennis altitudes.
Shelton, who hit 11 double faults to go with his 14 aces, needed much more than his serve on this draining, humid night. He held his own and sometimes more from the baseline and came up with winning volleys. He channeled his energy, embraced the pain and saved his most convincing tennis for the biggest moments, such as the set point he saved at 6-7 in the third-set tiebreaker with a forehand return winner. Shelton then won the next two points to take a two-set-to-one lead before finishing off the 10th-seeded Tiafoe 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.
Tiafoe, a surprise semifinalist last year at the US Open, looked edgy early – dribbling a ball off his foot before his opening serve – and looked resigned to his fate late.
“It’s a different seat to be in,” he said. “Obviously Ben really wanted to win. Ben came out and played with a lot of energy. Obviously a lot of times (when) I play late in tournaments, I’ve been the underdog. So I just go out and play. Kind of like how Ben did: play and swing and do whatever you want.”
Regrets? Tiafoe may have a few. This was their first official match but not their first duel. Earlier this summer, they faced off in an exhibition series in Los Angeles called UTS that has a shorter, faster format and an avant-garde vibe. Together, they put on a show with Tiafoe prevailing while painting the lines as freely as an impressionist.
But on Tuesday, when it counted, Shelton seemed to be the young American more fully embracing the moment.
“I’m thinking to myself as I’m walking to get my towel in the fourth set, and it’s like this is the greatest moment on the tennis court of my life; I’m in a lot of pain physically, but I’m loving it,” Shelton said. “I think that was just kind of the story of today.”
It is hard to see the story having a similar ending on Friday when Shelton faces Djokovic for the first time.
Djokovic is, of course, an outlier. At 36, he is nearly a decade older than the next oldest man still in contention. But he is about to return to No. 1 and is back within range of adding to his men’s record of 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
Though Shelton’s signature strength is his serve, Djokovic’s return is one of the best of all time, typically gathering strength and precision the more looks he get at an opponent’s delivery. Shelton’s weaker backhand wing will also certainly be a target even if he did hit some beauties against Tiafoe.
Djokovic is 12-0 in singles against Americans at the US Open. He manhandled another big-serving American in his twenties on Tuesday by defeating Taylor Fritz 6-1 6-4 6-4 in the sort of stifling heat that used to create big problems for Djokovic.
“Very humid conditions, difficult to play for both players, but that’s why we train, try to get ourselves in the best possible conditions to deliver,” Djokovic said. “Not easy, but you’ve got to fight.”
Shelton, born in Atlanta and raised in Gainesville, Fla., certainly knows heat and humidity. But he was delighted to learn early on Wednesday morning that he would have a two-day interval before his next singles match instead of just one day off.
Shelton will not be fully at rest. He is also playing mixed doubles with Taylor Townsend. But my sense is that he will come out full of fire on Friday and not shrink from the grand occasion. The trouble is, Djokovic remains the game’s ultimate fire extinguisher.
“I think whenever you play somebody for the first time and somebody who’s been in this situation so many times and come out victorious so many times, that’s in the back of your head,” Shelton said. “You just know how rock-solid the guy is and how mentally tough and how physically tough, so that’s definitely something I have to game plan for.”
Best of luck.
“I also think it’s an advantage with my game style playing someone who has never played me before,” Shelton added. “I think I can bring some things to the table that maybe you don’t see in your normal match you play on the ATP Tour. So, I’m definitely going to try to bring some things to the table that are different and hopefully disruptive.”
Novelty and variety have worked wonders for another ebullient 20-year-old. Carlos Alcaraz, with his quickness and all-court prowess, managed to stop Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and may face him again for the silverware in New York. But Alcaraz is more polished and precise in the forecourt than Shelton and also more consistent and routinely decisive from the baseline, with his deadly drop shot for a changeup.
Shelton still has a puncher’s chance against Djokovic, just not much of one.
However it goes on Friday, the youngster is a formidable and charismatic talent, which explains why Team8, the boutique agency founded by Roger Federer and his agent Tony Godsick, signed Shelton last year.
Team8 also runs the Laver Cup, the annual team event that will be staged later this month in Vancouver, Canada. Eyebrows were understandably raised when Shelton, a Team8 client, was announced as part of the six-member Team World despite his difficult few months and a ranking of No. 46. But his inclusion now looks rather more prescient.
Win or lose against Djokovic, Shelton will be in the top 20 next week, reconfirmed as one of tennis’s brightest young talents even if the learning curve will still be steep considering how little he has competed on clay or grass.
American hardcourts are clearly home turf, however, and in only his fifth Grand Slam tournament, he is part of the final four and back ahead of schedule.