Every now and then a young player pops his head up on the tour and announces that he will be a force to be reckoned with, and then disappears for a little while until his moment actually arrives. The first glimpse is a sign of things to come, while something hasn’t quite clicked into place yet; but you know it’s coming. We saw this with Lorenzo Musetti in Rome two years ago, and in Jack Draper taking a set off of Novak Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon while ranked 253rd in the world. Recently we saw another glimpse of greatness from a young player whose skillset seems destined to take him into the top 100, when American Ben Shelton pushed reigning champion John Isner to three hard sets in Round 2 of the Atlanta Open. It seems like only a matter of time before the 19-year-old is on everyone’s radar, as he already is in college tennis.
Ben Shelton’s Time is Soon
Rising on the Back of Undeniable Skill
Ben Shelton has already accomplished a major achievement, winning the NCAA tournament this year. He attends the University of Florida, where his father (a former Top 100 player) is the tennis coach, and he has the polish of someone who has grown up under careful instruction. The match against Isner featured his booming serve and forehand (with the lefty advantage), a solid two-handed backhand, and movement that was better than you would expect from a 6’3″ 190-pounder. Most impressive were his forehands, a heavy thumping stroke that he placed well into the corners, and which represent the standard modern forehand.
Just as impressive as Shelton’s strokes was his poise. He looked like he belonged on the stage, and did not seem intimidated by a player who had won the tournament six times and is the career ace leader in tennis history. Shelton was making only his second ATP start, but you wouldn’t have known it from his apparent lack of nerves or self-consciousness.
Isner’s reaction at the end of the match was telling, where he seemed to realize that he had escaped with a win, and his response to Shelton at the net seemed more congratulatory than what you’d show to a player who had lost. Brad Gilbert wrote about Shelton and tweeted that he thinks he “will be Top 50 for sure.”
Top 100 Comparisons
To get an idea of Shelton’s potential, we can look at the players most like him on tour. He is almost identical to Jack Draper, and is a slightly smaller version of Federico Delbonis. He also reminds one of a lefty Andy Murray, though without quite the diversity of shots as of yet. And he is very similar to compatriot Jenson Brooksby. All of these players are roughly the same size, and have a good first serve and a powerful forehand, as well as a capable two-handed backhand. Murray is an excellent model to follow, and both Brooksby and Draper are rising consistently. Shelton looks for sure like a Top 100 player, and like Brad Gilbert I would not be surprised to see him in the Top 50 in the future. Beyond that, who knows? But that’s a good start.
When to Turn Pro?
The question for Shelton is whether he wants to embark on his tennis career right away, or whether he is going to finish college. The college-aged years are prime years for building a career, as we’ve seen with Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune, and others, but classes and schoolwork don’t allow for the time needed to make that push or to travel all over the world. Atlanta is a short drive from Gainesville, Florida; Rome and Madrid and London are not.
Americans tend to place a high value on college, which leads me to think Shelton may go that route, but it would be a shame to waste several golden years of what could be a legitimate tennis career in order to pursue a degree ostensibly for a career in another field. Shelton has a tennis career ahead of him if he wants it, and starting the tour while he’s young and fresh will lead him to a Masters degree and a doctorate in tennis skill in short order. He can look to Brooksby as a model of his possibilities, as Brooksby has risen inside the top 40 by the age of 21.
For now, Shelton sits at #254 in the world, and puts in appearances at Futures and Challenger events from time to time as he sharpens his skills on the college circuit. But it shouldn’t be long before he makes a splash on the ATP Tour. He’s been offered a wild card to the US Open, and that could be a turning point in whether he makes the decision to turn pro. American tennis has yet to recapture the extremely lofty heights of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, or even come near it, but still it’s doing well, with Brooksby, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, John Isner, and several others playing at a high level. Shelton can add to that growing list, and I believe he will, and hopefully his rise will come sooner rather than later.
Main Photo from Getty.