At the packed grandstand court here on Friday, you could hear the fans’ murmured conversation, a low, languid hush, as Ben Shelton toed the line to serve for the first time.
Then the hush came to a jarring halt. Shelton’s knees bent, his shoulder cranked, and his Yonex tennis racket thrust violently toward the tossed ball.
He unleashed a 130-mile-per-hour heater, an ace that stunned his third-round opponent, Russian tour vet Aslan Karatsev, and sounded like a leather whip lacing a fence post.
“Whoa!” came a unified response from an astonished and suddenly very loud and awake crowd, a large majority of which had likely never seen Shelton, still in his first year as a professional.
“So, this is what everyone’s talking about,” I heard a fan mutter.
“He’s got some serious game,” said another.
Serious game, indeed.
For me, as for most tennis fans, among the great joys of every U.S. Open is the discovery of young, emerging, surprising talent. This year is no exception. A quick walk through the sprawling grounds on any day during this first week revealed a strong crop of sterling up-and-comers. Look, there’s France’s Arthur Fils, cranking forehands. And there’s Czechoslovakia’s 18-year-old qualifier Jakub Mensik. The Russian Mirra Andreeva might be just 16, but she already hits the yellow felt off the ball.
Shelton, 20, is the best of the bunch. Dripping with raw talent, he is the ultimate late bloomer, a player who puts the lie to the notion that top-tier tennis pros must first be 12- and 13-year-old forehand-smacking prodigies.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in less than a year on the ATP Tour, the young Floridian has risen from tennis’ minor leagues to a career-high ranking in May of No. 35. (He entered the Open ranked No. 47.)
But this week, doubt swirled. For all of Shelton’s ability, he has of late been on a steep learning curve. The movie version of his rookie season could be titled The Education of a Young Tennis Pro.
Over the last seven months, he has sustained 19 losses and struggled to string together wins. When he beat former U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem this week — a match called early when Thiem defaulted with illness after losing the first set — it was the first time Shelton had won back-to-back singles matches since he’d made his surprising quarterfinal run at January’s Australian Open.
During his matches in Melbourne, he flashed an eye-widening talent that gave a tennis-head like me goose bumps, reminding me of the first time I saw Roger Federer.
Seeing Shelton up close at Flushing Meadows did not disappoint.
In the first set against Karatsev, everything came easy. Shelton broke Karatsev with a smooth forehand winner. Then he cruised, serving with the canniness of an All-Star pitcher, firing off 140-mile-per-hour lasers then befuddling his opponent with left-handed spin.
Shelton won the opening refrain, 6-4, in 33 minutes.
His best qualities were shining through, and the crowd was more than willing to go along for the ride. Many pros play with a foreboding look, grimly serious, sometimes hangdog, or remarkably neutral, like poker players. There is no neutral with Shelton. He pumps his fists and shouts in celebration and shows what he feels at virtually every moment of every match — often with a broad, inviting smile.
Then there is his skill. Shelton can bend balls with heavy spin, flatten them for winners, or cut at them for precision volleys. Few on tour have his strength — he’s built like a football safety: 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, sculpted muscles — or his combination of foot speed and live-arm explosiveness.
His talent is so immense that his coach, who happens to be his father, former professional Bryan Shelton, says a primary goal is to contain his son’s prodigious abilities. For example, instead of firing off a high-powered ace and then excitedly trying to serve the next ball with even more umph, he tries to get his son to dial it back a bit, learn to control the zeal.
Dialing back after Friday’s smooth first set proved difficult. Karatsev began drawing a bead on Shelton’s serve. The Russian returned enough of them, tightening his offense to gain the upper hand.
Second set, Karatsev, 6-3.
Shelton’s level had dipped just a bit, a sign of his inexperience.
He only became serious about tennis after quitting football in 7th grade. He was not an upper-tier American junior until late in high school, nor did he do what upper tier juniors do. He did not leave the country to face high-test competition. He did not he play any of the significant junior grand slam events that have operated as springboards for many pros.
Shelton went to the University of Florida, where the men’s tennis coach happened to be Bryan Shelton, who is well respected in tennis circles for emphasizing a mastery of the game over chasing victories.
There was no grand plan to move Ben quickly up the tennis ranks. The foundation began coming together seemingly out of nowhere.
“You work on something, you work on something, you keep working on it, and then, six months later, you see that you can do it,” the younger Shelton told me this week. “That’s what happened to me. And at the same time, I think I finally grew into my body, which helped me move a lot better. When that changed, my whole game changed.”
By his account, Shelton was the fifth best player on his Florida team in 2021, but won the N.C.A.A. singles title in 2022 — a tennis anomaly if ever there was one. Then he began running roughshod in ATP Challenger tournaments, the tennis equivalent of Triple-A baseball.
For the first time in his life, he traveled outside the United States, off to the Australian Open. Who could have imagined his success there? Not even him. He reeled off four upsets, making it to the quarterfinals of his second Grand Slam tournament before losing to veteran Tommy Paul.
Now comes the hard part. Pro tennis is full of quicksand that has swallowed players who succumbed to the pressure of great promise. Shelton appears ready to leapfrog all the typical obstacles and thrive if the last two sets of his battle against Karatsev are any guide.
The third set went quickly. Shelton’s serve cranked to a new level: He hit 147 m.p.h on the radar gun, the fastest in the tournament. He held two break points, won them both, and took the stanza, 6-2.
“Go Ben!” came shouts from the crowd.
“Ben, we love you!”
Karatsev’s shoulders slumped. He knew what was coming.
In the fourth set, Shelton did not lose a game, putting a crowning cap on what amounted to a U.S. Open launch party.
Final score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0. Onto the round of 16, where his opponent will be Paul, the compatriot who bested him at the Australian Open.
The Education of a Young Tennis Pro continues.
Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column. More about Kurt Streeter
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