The 14 Pillars of Ben Shelton. Osaka, Michael Phelps and the USTA on Mental Health, Grace and Forgiveness

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

New York

THE 14 PILLARS OF BEN SHELTON:

  1. PLAYING MORE THAN FOR JUST HIMSELF: When Inside Tennis asked US Open semifinalist Ben Shelton what’s the most important lesson that tennis has taught him, he replied, “Being able to be in college and play for something bigger than myself, being selfless, caring about my teammates, knowing how to lift up people around me, so that not everything is about myself. That’s the biggest lesson that I learned…Still being a good person, saying thank you to the people who hold the door and the security guards, people who serve us the food here.” Now Shelton will be trying to serve up a huge tennis triumph for his country, which has long been starving for a men’s Slam champion.
  1. SHELTON’S SECRET SAUCE: What  do Shelton, Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe have in common? They all have huge smiles and use their joy as an on-court weapon and a way to engage the crowd. And they all love the big stage.  
  1. FEARLESS WARRIOR: Shelton blasts forehand winners from 15′ behind the baseline and unleashes 149 mph aces. Commentator José Higueras said, “His demeanor reminds me of Carlos Alcaraz. He’s not afraid to do anything. You sense he is playing free and has nothing to lose.”
  1. THE POWER OF YOUTH: These days we’re tempted to say, “Roger who?” or “Rafa what?” Shelton and Alcaraz are 20, and Gauff is just 19.
  1. HOT AND COLD: Shelton had a stunning breakout run to the Aussie Open quarterfinals in January. But between then and coming to the Open, he won back-to-back matches only twice. Against Frances Tiafoe he’d unleash a series of mind-blowing winners, but then he’d donate two double faults in a row. Gill Gross noted, “if you want to see a player where you have no idea what’s going to happen, Ben Shelton is your man.”
  1. BLUR, BABY, BLUR: There’s nothing like having a huge weapon – Shelton’s serve, that has both huge power and ample variety, and frightens and diminishes his foes. Shelton has an amazingly live arm, and last night he told the crowd, “Sometimes you have to shut off your brain, close your eyes and just swing.”
  1. SOUTHPAW POWER: The operatic run to the 1991 US Open semis by lefty Jimmy Connors sent the US Open into a whole new stratosphere. His genital-grabbing, headline-making performances made the Open a must-see event. For the past 20 years, when we haven’t been able to boast of a single men’s Slam champ, another lefty, the broadcaster and tennis character extraordinaire John McEnroe, has been front and center more than any other figure. Now Shelton, with his booming left-handed serve, could lead American tennis fanatics to the promised land. 
  1. FAST RISER: When Shelton was at the University of Florida, he often played in the No. 3 slot. Just over a year ago, his ranking was well over 300. He’d never played a Slam. Before the Australian Open he’d never left America. And he’s still only America’s seventh best player. But, en route to the semis, Shelton took out two Americans in four sets. He baffled No. 14 Tommy Paul in the fourth round and subdued the surprisingly tepid Frances Tiafoe. No. 10, in the quarterfinals.
  2. RAH-RAH! GO TEAM! “College tennis is loud!” said commentator Andrea Petkovic. “It’s a circus. Your team relies on you. If you can’t handle that, you can’t handle the US Open.” Many, from John McEnroe, John Isner and Stevie Johnson to Cam Norrie and Peyton Stearns, have used collegiate tennis as a springboard. And Shelton led his Florida Gators to the 2021 NCAA championships. His passion can be linked to the ferocity of the college game.
  1. SHELTON AND SON: Ben spoke of the good vibes coming from his Friend’s Box. Yes, his mother and sister were on hand. But it was his father Bryan, who just left his post at the University of Florida to coach his son and has guided him through so many matches. Clearly last night Shelton’s vocal, continually engaged team out-coached Tiafoe and his team, which was often distant, subdued or even mute. Then again, Shelton emerged out of a collegiate tradition where coaching is virtually constant.
  1. HANG IN THERE A-ROD: Shelton is threatening not one but two of Andy Roddick’s marks. Sunday, he could become the first American to win a Slam since Roddick took the US Open in 2003. And, since Shelton blasted two 149 mph serves the other day, many say it will just be a matter of time before he breaks Andy’s US Open fastest serve record of 152 mph.
  1. EYES ON THE PRIZE: Shelton has long made clear that he wants to be No. 1 and win Slams.
  1.  THE SCARY THING: Ben is just in his first full year as a pro – and he can get so much better. 
  1. OH, NO, NOVAK: Sure, Shelton has a puncher’s chance in Friday’s semi against Novak Djokovic. We know that the greatest player of all time is eager to win a 24th Slam title and has performed brilliantly against virtually all the lefties he’s faced who weren’t named Rafa. Plus he has a penchant for taking down Americans. Just ask Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz. He’s never lost to an American at the US Open. So we say, “Good luck, Ben!”

A MENTAL HEALTH SCOURGE – OSAKA, PHELPS AND THE USTA TAKE A DEEP DIVE: Today Naomi Osaka was back at the US Open, not as a player but as part of an innovative forum on mental health and sports.

She joined US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, along with Olympic hero Michael Phelps, and the president of the USTA Brian Hainline, who is a much celebrated neurologist who for years has done extensive medical work for the NCAA.

The US Open forum was packed with reporters and top figures in tennis. We were told that traditionally, when it comes to mental problems, we were supposed to suck it up and tough it out.

Michael Phelps confided that years ago he suffered post-Olympic depression. He felt deeply detached. But he just pushed his discomfort away and trained in the pool, hoping that his malaise would go away. But soon he learned that it’s all right to be vulnerable or, more simply, it’s okay to be not okay. It’s good to speak out. Not to do so, we were told, “is like going through life with one arm cut off. So many suffer in silence.” Phelps contended that if you take care of your physical and mental health, you can be a superhero. 

Hainline noted that in life we face so many scourges – fear, hunger, thirst. But loneliness is also a scourge. He added, “We all need to be seen, heard and understood for who we are. If we don’t address our mental health, we’ll be undermined.”

Reaching out to friends has been key for Osaka. Having a buddy is critical – and intervention is good. Osaka confirmed that she was lonely during her recent pregnancy. She dearly missed being at the Australian Open. But she reached out for help. 

As for the digital world, Osaka said, “I get very scared of social media.” The panel noted the vast hours kids spend on their devices and how social media connections differ profoundly from in-person relationships. If we can control car accidents with common sense rules, we should be able to make reasonable reforms for social media.

Osaka went on to say about social media, “I’m learning something new each year.” She added that she felt a lot of joy being back at the US Open, where she experienced such great triumphs, as well as traumas. 

Dr. Hainline stated that tennis is the healthiest of sports. Studies show that it increases longevity more than any other. There was no discussion about the core ferocity of pro tennis, where winning seems to be everything and so many have struggled or just left the circuit. Still, today’s forum drew praise. A prime theme was that we need grace and forgiveness.

Then a reporter asked the Surgeon General a provocative question: “We’re in a sports event and it’s a difficult topic to bring up, but there is a little bit of an elephant in this room. We are talking here about mental health in our culture. But in our country the prime voice in our culture for many years has made very demeaning comments, has spoken about people being losers, has made comments about women and people of color that are divisive. Day in, day out we get this torrent. Is there anything our government can do to focus on grace and forgiveness? And what should individuals do when we have this almost daily storm of derogatory comments?

 Dr. Murthy replied, “Thanks for that question…I think it’s the role of every leader to lead by example in demonstrating the kind of values we want to see in our culture.

“We have to remember that our children are listening to us, and think about the values we want in the country and the society that our children are growing up in, I want people to be kind to one another. I want friendship to be valued. I want service to be something that we aspire to and pursue.

“I want generosity to be something that is lauded and something that is pursued. These are the core values that I think make a society strong, and we need our leaders to lead by example.”

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