NEW YORK — Rising American tennis star Ben Shelton advanced to the US Open quarterfinals on Sunday with a 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over No. 14 seed Tommy Paul in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Remarkably, it’s the second Grand Slam quarterfinal the 20-year old has reached this season, matching his result at the Australian Open in January.
But what makes Shelton’s year unique is that he did not win consecutive matches on the ATP Tour in any of the other 18 tournaments he entered in between his two big Grand Slam results.
By beating fellow American Paul, Shelton will reach a new career high of at least No. 27 in the world next week with a chance to go higher if he keeps advancing.
He will face No. 10 seed Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday in arguably the biggest match between American men’s tennis players in more than a decade.
Here are five things to know about “Box Office Ben,” who is poised to become a household name in American sports over the next decade.
The serve, the serve, the serve
While many of Shelton’s tools are still raw — he grew up as a multi-sport athlete with a focus on football until middle school — his serve is already grown up.
A 6-foot-4 lefty, Shelton can generate massive power and kick with a lot of variety in his location and trajectory. It’s just a difficult shot for opponents to read and react to, and when Shelton’s serve is firing he can get a lot of quick and easy holds.
He’s been cranking up the power at this US Open in particular, with several in the 130 mph range. Against Paul, he even had a game with two 149 mph aces, which registered as the fastest serves of the tournament so far.
“Straight adrenaline,” he said. “Any other atmosphere, I probably couldn’t get it done.”
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Elite tennis bloodlines
Shelton’s father, Bryan Shelton, played on the ATP Tour for nearly a decade after attending Georgia Tech, reaching a career high of No. 55 in 1992. Known as a good grass court player with his serve and net game, the elder Shelton reached the Wimbledon fourth round in 1994 and won his two ATP titles on grass at the tournament in Newport, Rhode Island.
After his playing career, he took over as the women’s coach at Georgia Tech in 2000 and won a national title seven years later. In 2013, he left for Florida to become the men’s coach and won a national championship in 2021 in Ben’s freshman season.
The following year, Ben won the NCAA men’s singles title and decided to turn pro after a couple good results in Challenger-level events and an upset of three-time Grand Slam finalist Casper Ruud in Cincinnati.
After the college season earlier this year, Bryan Shelton stepped down from his position at Florida to focus on coaching his son full time.
A year of learning
When Shelton left for Australia at the beginning of the year, it wasn’t just his first time Down Under, it was his first time in any country besides the United States.
While most top players spend years playing the elite junior circuit and junior Grand Slam events before they officially became pros, Bryan Shelton did not see international competition as a crucial step to building his son as a tennis player, noting that Ben wasn’t even ranked at the top of his division domestically.
Though the non-traditional route and focus on college tennis obviously helped Shelton become more mature when he was finally ready for the tour, there was one downside: It was his first time seeing all of these tournaments. Before this spring, he had never played on red clay or grass, which are quirky surfaces that typically require some experience to understand the necessary movement and how the ball reacts.
“I didn’t expect to be at the very top level on those surfaces right away,” he said. “I think that was a piece for me that I kind of had to keep my perspective and know that, OK, it’s not like I’m supposed to go out here and win every single match just because I did something good early in the season. I knew it was going to be a challenge learning on these surfaces in a short amount of time.”
It’s no surprise Shelton struggled during that part of the year, going 2-8 on clay and 2-3 on grass.
Because of his big early results, including that Australian Open quarterfinal, Shelton also got a target on his back pretty quickly. He didn’t have much of a honeymoon period as a newcomer whose game was unfamiliar to top players, and his weaknesses — namely return of serve and shot selection — got exposed.
Like pretty much all young players when they first get out on tour, he’s had to figure out different ways to win.
“It’s not about always hitting through the guy that you’re playing,” he said. “I’ve kind of found being out here on tour, everyone is really good at hitting the ball. You hit it hard, hit it the same speed, guys can play and they can play really well. I think having some variety and mixing things up is something that’s important for me and my game style.”
Affiliation with Federer
When Shelton turned pro last summer, he signed with the TEAM8 management agency, which was co-founded by Roger Federer and his longtime agent Tony Godsick. Then in March, Shelton signed a shoe and apparel deal with On, the Swiss company that Federer was an early investor in.
The fact that Shelton was hand-picked to be the face of that brand along with women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek suggests that Federer and his team are high on Shelton’s potential. Federer appeared with the two of them at a promotional event in New York prior to the US Open.
On has provided Shelton with a unique kit for the tournament: A white sleeveless shirt with a neon pink vertical panel running down the left side all the way from his shoulder to the bottom of his shorts.
A showman in the making
Shelton has started to earn the nickname “Box Office Ben” because of his explosive athleticism and how heavily he leans into the entertainment aspect of tennis. Win or lose, any Shelton match is going to produce a lot of highlight-reel plays followed by big celebrations, fist pumps and screams. After match point against Paul, he turned to his players’ box and pointed to his right bicep.
Though some might find his style a bit over the top or more fit for the team setting he grew up in playing college tennis, Shelton is part of a new generation of players along with Tiafoe who and Carlos Alcaraz who see themselves as elite athletes more than just tennis players and want to play with joy and put on a show in addition to winning matches.
“I think it’s really important for getting me in the right mental state, playing the type of tennis where I love to be out there,” he said. “I feel like when I try to put myself in this (mindset of), ‘let’s be professional, be quiet, have a stern look on my face the whole time I’m playing, it takes away from some of my creativity on the court. When I’m having fun, I’m playing some of my best tennis.”