Saturday, July 20, 2024

US Open 2023: Ben Shelton is the big-serving, big-smiling face of an American men’s tennis resurgence

American men’s tennis is in a great place. Entering the US Open, three Americans, in fact, ranked among the world’s top 14 players: Taylor Fritz (9), Frances Tiafoe (10) and Tommy Paul (14). 

All those guys had good showings but are out in New York. 

Ben Shelton, at 20 years old, is still in after defeating Tiafoe on Tuesday in what was the first quarterfinal of the Open era, which dates back to 1968, between two African American men. 

It was a big day for tennis in general. It was certainly a momentous day for Shelton, who advances to the first Grand Slam semifinal of his brief career, where he’ll face 23-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic on Friday night. Get your popcorn ready, because this dude Shelton is going to be firing bazooka balls at the greatest defensive player in history. 

It’s hard to put into perspective Shelton’s meteoric rise in a sport typically dominated by players who have been taking lessons day after day since as far back as their memory goes. Shelton, despite having a father who played professionally for eight years, reaching a world ranking as high as 55th, and a mother who was an accomplished junior player, didn’t start playing tennis regularly until he was a teenager. 

Next thing you know, he was winning a national championship at the University of Florida — prologue to his establishing himself as the fastest rising star in tennis not named Carlos Alcaraz. With his win on Tuesday, Shelton, who started the 2022 season as the 573rd-ranked player in the world, moves to No. 19 in his first season on tour. 

Have you any idea what a rocket-ship ascension that is? And to say the kid hasn’t scratched the surface of his talent, or the potential that comes with it, would be an understatement. But it’s more than that. It’s what marketers would call the whole package, young and charismatic with a smile as big as his serve, which hit a blinding 149 mph in his quarterfinal win over Paul. 

The fact that he’s a lefty, on top of that kind of power, is almost unfair. Dude cranks triple-digit forehands and can put an almost screwball spin on inside-out hammers. And he’ll do it with it all on the line. Have a look at the nuke he uncorked with the third set, and perhaps the match, hanging in the balance. 

As the tweet indicates, Shelton had all but blown the third set prior to this shot. He had a 6-5 lead in the tiebreak and double faulted twice. Perhaps it’s a case of being too young to know better, but to have the nerve to hit that shot, in that moment, is the stuff you can’t teach. 

“Sometimes you gotta shut off the brain, close your eyes and just swing,” Shelton said. 

Easier said than done for most, but Shelton appears cut from a more carefree cloth. He seems to have the good sense of playing smart tennis without thinking too much. He’s a power player who made use of drop shots and volleys in tight spots against Tiafoe, winning a solid enough 58% of his net points. He prevailed in some long rallies despite a success rate that had, in previous matches, fallen off a cliff in points of more than five shots. Like this one:

It was a savvy, mature victory in which Shelton had to dig deeper in his bag that he might’ve needed to had his serve been on point. That’s the sign of a great player. A professional. It’s easy, or at least a lot easier, when you’re acing your opponent off the court. 

Shelton leads the Open with 76 total aces. On Tuesday he had 14 of them. But he also double faulted 11 times. He never went north of 140 mph, living more in the 115-125 range, and leaned on variety that was perhaps too easy on Tiafoe, who had a number of strong returns after Shelton laid a wide slider right into his backhand rather than just juicing one up the T from the Ad side. Shelton’s serve was huge in spots, but overall it was not dominant. 

For instance, Tiafoe broke Shelton three times alone in the third set. For a player who relies so heavily on winning service games, and is so accustomed to doing so, that could’ve taken Shelton completely out of this match mentally. But it didn’t. Instead, even with his return as the weakest part of his game, he turned right around and broke Tiafoe again three times with shots like this:

That is silly. Shelton takes a winning shot from Tiafoe and doesn’t just foil it, but turns it into a winner of his own, one of the 50 he hit in this match. Those are the shots that bring a crowd, especially an Open crowd, to its feet, and not everyone can hit them. Ben Shelton is special. The game, the personality, he’s made for the marquee in a way that perhaps no American male player has been since Andre Agassi. 

That’s a big deal. For the last two decades men’s tennis has been dominated by the big three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, and the next tier of players was headlined by Britain’s Andy Murray. The last American male to win a US Open was Andy Roddick in 2003. As recently as 2021, for the first time in the history of computerized tennis rankings, there wasn’t a single American male inside the world’s top 30. 

Now there’s four inside the top 20. They’re all supremely talented. But Shelton looks like the one poised to both relight the American torch and carry it into what looks like the most promosing era since the Sampras-Agassi days of the 1990s. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20 year old. But pressure, as the great Billie Jean King says, is a privilege, and watching Ben Shelton play tennis certainly qualifies as that. 

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