Shelton part of growing crop of US men

Shelton part of growing crop of US men

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – To get an idea of ​​how new the whole international pro tennis thing is for Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida, who is about to make his debut with the Australian Open, consider this: He says he’s using a pass for the first time.

There is more that is unknown to him. The Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide flight route late last month that took Shelton on his first trip outside of the United States, playing tuneup events ahead of the first Grand Slam tournament in 2023. Go through customs. Try different foods. Drive the car on the left side of the road.

Not to mention the on-court learning curve Shelton will continue to go through when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park on Tuesday against Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old Chinese man who has also never starred in the draw before.

“It’s a completely different ball game,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s all a lot of experience that I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be out here.”

It’s been said over and over again: No American has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. Shelton is among a group of players hoping to eventually end this drought and while it may still be some time, breakthrough performances from Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima in 2022 helped show compatriots what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, made it to the semifinals of the US Open, the first American man to get that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, broke into the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, a 21-year-old Californian, won the Next Gen ATP Finals.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s cool to see these guys doing amazing things. It’s definitely something I can look up to,” said Shelton, who tended to smile broadly as he spoke. “American tennis is definitely on the way up.”

A total of 13 Americans are in the ATP top 100, with Shelton checking in at No. 92 of career best after turning pro last year.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and a friend of Shelton, who is playing in Australia on Monday. “When things aren’t going well he’s still so confident and focused on deciding that things are just going well. It’s very rare. You will hear screams. You will hear “Vamos!” You will see fist pumps. No matter what the score is.”

Shelton’s father, Bryan, a former pro who taught Ben the game and coaches in Florida, described it as “a football mentality” stemming from his exposure to the sport alongside basketball and football as a youth. It wasn’t until Ben turned 11 that he focused on tennis – because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels, like his sister Emma, ​​who now competes for Florida.

There is a tournament strength of 14 US players in the men’s bracket at the Australian Open, and the 17 in the women’s bracket also leads all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin have won major trophies in women’s singles for the United States over the last two decades.)

“The American men in their 20s, there are a lot of guys who are succeeding and steadily climbing the ladder. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; Of course I want Taylor to do his best. But hopefully we’ll have an American as a Grand Slam champion again soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his sophomore season and is taking online courses for a business degree, agrees to take things one step at a time.

He’s more interested in process-related goals than anything tied to rankings or results – even if he’s skyrocketed to 471 in 2022, including a win over French Open and US Open runners-up Casper Ruud, and three consecutive titles on the lower level Challenger Tour.

“He’s had a lot of success, but there’s so much room for improvement,” Bryan Shelton said of his son. “He recognizes that.”

There weren’t as many surprises on the court for Ben as he was off the field during his first experience on the tour.

“The way players take care of all those things — their body, how they eat, how they warm up, the work they do in the gym every day,” Shelton said, “I would say that was the interesting part for me . To see how much it takes to be at the level these guys are at.”


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