Unless you have been waking up before dawn to watch the Australian Open, or you happen to be a diehard Florida Gators tennis fan, you probably have been missing the emergence of Ben Shelton, one of the most compelling stories in American tennis in a long time.
A year ago, Shelton was ranked No. 569 in the world and getting ready for his sophomore season at the University of Florida, where his father, Bryan, a former pro who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, is the men’s tennis coach.
Shelton’s main goal at that time was to win the NCAA title, which he did last spring. The 6-4 lefty with tousled hair, a booming serve and all-around game dabbled on the pro tour during the summer as a wild-card entry and proved he belonged. He grabbed international headlines in mid-August after cruising past fifth-ranked French Open runner-up Casper Ruud 6-3, 6-3 at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
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A week later, he wisely opted to forego his final two years of college eligibility and turn pro, ahead of the U.S. Open. His social media posts that day read: “I am going to continue my Finance degree online while traveling on tour. I can’t wait to get out there, expand my horizons, and see what this next chapter has in store. Gator Nation, I will be repping all over the world. Chomp Chomp, Ben Shelton.”
Shelton now finds himself as one of three U.S. men in the Australian Open quarterfinals, the first time three Americans made the final eight there since 2000. He is the first NCAA champion to make the following year’s Australian Open quarterfinal since Arthur Ashe in 1966.
His tournament paycheck so far was $372,956 heading into his match late Tuesday night against fellow American Tommy Paul.
Not bad for a guy who had never traveled outside the United States until this month. Never used a passport. Not even for vacation. He now has his first stamp.
Unlike other tennis parents who yank their kids out of school and send them abroad in search of junior ranking points, the Sheltons kept their son on American soil and insisted on education.
Bryan Shelton played for Georgia Tech and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering in 1989. He reached a career-high No. 55 in the world in 1992 and made the Wimbledon fourth round in 1994. He went on to coach the women’s team at Georgia Tech and men’s team at Florida, leading both to NCAA titles — the first person to accomplish that feat.
Lisa Witsken, Ben’s mother, played junior tennis and her brother Todd was a three-time All-American at USC. The Sheltons felt there were plenty of opportunities for their son to work on his game domestically and have a balanced life.
Looks like they were right.
Take note, youth sports parents out there. If your child is talented enough, and works hard enough, there is no need to forego education or max out the credit card traipsing the globe chasing a dream that may not come true.
Ben Shelton was 11 months old when former U.S. star Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open. Seventy-five Grand Slam tournaments have been played since that day and not one has been won by an American man.
That is not a typo. Seventy-five Grand Slams. Not a single U.S. male champion. Roddick was the last.
During the past two decades Serena and Venus Williams loaded up on major titles on the women’s side and there have been male champions from Switzerland, Spain, Serbia, Argentina, Great Britain, Croatia, Austria and Russia. But none from the United States.
Shelton, 20, is the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Roddick in 2001. For years now, we have been waiting for “The Next Great American” to replace Roddick since his retirement.
The list of American men who dominated the sport in the Open era is impressive: Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Roddick.
Will an American man ever win a Slam title again?
Now, there is hope. Ten Americans will be in the top 50 next week, including Shelton. Ninth-ranked Taylor Fritz and 17th-ranked Frances Tiafoe lead the group. Shelton, Paul, and Sebastian Korda made the Aussie Open quarters this week.
Despite his lineage, Shelton never imagined he would become a pro tennis player. He called this week “a pinch-me moment.” He played tennis, basketball, soccer and football as a kid, and football was his favorite. He played quarterback and was obsessed with college football, hanging out with Georgia Tech players while on campus with his father.
But when he reached middle school, he switched from football to tennis.
“For the first 12 or 13 years of my life, I swore I would never play tennis,” he said courtside this week, wearing a giant smile. “That was my dad’s thing, and I was gonna let him have it. Then I fell in love with the sport, and here we are. Hopefully, I can make a career out of it.”
Ben, that seems like that’s a safe bet. Time will tell how far you go, but that passport is about to fill up.