I’m hardly Einstein and not nearly smart enough to get into Yale – are you kidding me? But I have some family members who went to the august ivy and, on occasion, they’d invite me to go to the posh Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. It was snooty but fun. Plus the International Tennis Writers Association would have pre-US Open receptions there.
Last year the Intercollegiate Tennis Association had its award ceremony at the Yale Club before the US Open. It was a great but long evening. Still, we know how these things go. The speeches, the videos and the thank yous inevitably blend into a blur.
Then a kid was introduced.
The winner of the ITA’s Player of the Year Award strode from the back of the room, a beaming, engaging hunk. His dazzling smile ignited the room. The energy shifted.
Who knew that four months later this boy, Ben Shelton, then just 19, would be poised to shift the tennis landscape?
One of tennis’s not-so-secret powers is that it perpetually produces young, charismatic stars that inspire – Boris Becker at Wimbledon, Venus in Oakland, Serena in New York. Jennifer Capriati was such a sensation that tourneys were called the Virginia Slims of Capriati. Melanie Oudin and Cici Bellis had their 15 minutes of fame. But others that shone early – long-haired Andre Agassi, waif-like Monica Seles, and innocent 15-year-old Naomi Osaka – went on to have fabulous careers.
Now, with his improbable run to the Aussie Open quarterfinals, young Shelton, who hadn’t won a Slam match before coming to Melbourne, has burst onto the scene. Yes, he won the NCAA singles championship and he scored the decisive win when his Florida Gators chomped their way to the team title. In August, he upset No. 5 Casper Ruud in Cincy, and this fall he powered his way to three challengers titles in three weeks. Whew!
But a year ago he was just No. 3 in the Gators’ line-up and last July his ranking was outside the top 400. He’d never played a Slam. Heck, he’d never left the United States.
He brought to Australia his two greatest assets. His imposing 140 mph lefty serve has variety, spin and bite. And his melt-your-heart charisma is an endearing gift. I saw it light up a listless New York banquet room. Australia is watching as he ignites its stadiums. He quickly befriended one Aussie crowd that had greeted him with boos.
His post-match interviews are jolly adventures. Yesterday, after he came back to beat his fellow collegian, Ohio State’s JJ Wolf, in five rollercoaster sets 6-7, 6-2, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, he told a throng of cheering Aussies, “It’s been a dream…It was definitely a grueling match. There were a lot of swings…It was going to him and then me and then him and then me. So, thanks, everyone…[This] has been amazing…I really focused in the fifth set, just be energetic, trusting my fitness, just hustling, being courageous…I did a really good job of competing at the highest level.”
And one thing Ben has at the highest level is good fortune. For starters, he’s a lefty. Rafa, Laver, McEnroe and Connors will tell you that works. Plus his mother Lisa was a pro. His late uncle, Todd Witsken, had a win over Jimmy Connors, and his dad, Bryan Shelton, was an ATP pro who reached No. 55 and went on to become a superb coach at Georgia Tech and Florida. Bryan is a quiet but celebrated leader of young players.
At the Australian Open, Ben has had good luck, too. Lousy draws have stalled many a tennis career, but Shelton’s Melbourne lineup has been dreamy.
Shelton is now the youngest American to reach a Slam quarterfinal since Andy Roddick in 2002. And he’s the first man to win the NCAA title and go on to reach the Aussie quarters the next year since Arthur Ashe in 1966. But to get there he didn’t have to face Taylor Fritz, who was in his section. Instead he had to beat Zhizhen Zhang, Nicolas Jarry, Alexei Popyrin and JJ Wolf. Only one of them is in the top 100. The tennis gods obviously like this fellow.
Analysts like Ben’s game too. The No. 89 player, who amazingly will soon join ten other Americans in the top 50, relies on his blast-and-blur serve. He’s 6’ 5”, yet has fine speed. His forehand is explosive. He can hit assorted slices, and occasionally he serves and volleys.
Once a quarterback, he vowed not to play his dad’s sport. Clearly he’s been forged by the raucous, macho, in-your-face universe of college tennis. The rookie, who saved a match point in the first round, is an animated player who makes Danielle Collins look like a librarian. His mindset is fearless. He shouts loud, unleashes staccato gestures and seems to be surfing rivers of adrenalin. The kid loves the big moments and steps up at crunch time.
The first player born in 2002 to ever reach a Slam quarterfinal has a great veteran coach, Dean Goldfine, and a gifted trainer. His girlfriend, Anna Hall, is a world class heptathlete. Ben has a deep support system and his belief is off the charts. “Confidence isn’t taught. It just is,” noted one observer.
Shelton will be a considerable underdog in his quarterfinal against the 25-year-old veteran Tommy Paul. The former French Open junior titleist, who once beat Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz and Andy Murray, is ranked 54 points higher than Shelton and is coming off convincing wins over Jenson Brooksby and the former No. 9, Roberto Bautista Agut.
But Shelton seems unfazed. “It’s going to be a war,” he told the crowd. “I’m ready for battle.”
And tennis seems ready for Ben. “He’s just an amazing young man,” noted ITA chief Tim Russell. Australian Open TV observed, “He’s got spunk and spirit, and will attract many to the game…It’s the beauty of youth and the intrigue of the unknown.”