MELBOURNE, Australia — Prior to coming to New Zealand and Australia this month, Ben Shelton had never left the United States. Now, his first trip overseas has been extended after he defeated rising Australian Alexei Popyrin in the third round.
“It feels great,” Shelton said of making the last 16 of a Slam. “I said on court it was a bit of a pinch-me experience.”
Shelton’s path to professional tennis began at the U.S. collegiate level, playing for the University of Florida in Gainesville, for the most part under the watchful eye of his father (and Gators coach), Bryan Shelton.
Bryan Shelton was a professional tennis player, winning two ATP titles in Newport in the early ’90s after a collegiate career at Georgia Tech. And while Ben initially didn’t want to take up tennis and follow in his old man’s footsteps, he relented at age 12, picking up a racket and embarking on a journey that would see them reunite in college.
And while it is often the case that talented young Europeans or Australians hit the pro circuits in their teens (you only need to look at the Fruhvirtova sisters in Melbourne this year), professionally, the 20-year-old’s career only really started to take off midway through 2022.
His breakthrough came at the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati in August. Ranked No. 229 at the time, Shelton won two matches against top-60 opponents — beating Lorenzo Sonego in the first round, but crucially against Casper Ruud in the second round for his first win against a top-5 opponent.
He decided in August that he would leave the Florida program to go pro, and the big-serving left-hander then got a taste for Grand Slam tennis — a first-round loss to No. 104-ranked Nuno Borges in five sets.
Those who had been watching Shelton’s progress knew rapid improvement (and a rapid rise up the rankings) was coming. After his US Open debut, he rattled off consecutive Challenger Tour tournament victories in Charlottesville, Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Champaign, Illinois, accounting for a number of players in the top 200 and showing the world he was ready for a step up in quality and opponent.
Cue, the passport.
“There were players inside of the U.S. that could challenge me and beat me every week, and I wasn’t winning every single USTA tournament that I was playing. So my dad’s thoughts were, ‘I’m improving here, I’m not the best in the nation, and so there’s not really a reason to go to a different country where I probably would lose and learn a lot of the same things,'” Shelton said of why he’d never left the U.S. before now.
“I’m not sure if there was a moment where things clicked or it was just I knew that I was making gradual improvements in my game. I just started trusting myself more and more going into the summer.
“The more that I competed at a higher level, I had more trust in myself to keep moving forward.”
The trust led him down under and the start to his summer was positive; after a loss in qualifying in Adelaide, Shelton then defeated world No. 41 Sebastian Baez in Auckland before falling to No. 64-ranked Quentin Halys.
Nevertheless, he had already comfortably secured himself a spot in the Australian Open main draw and made his Melbourne debut well away from the hustle and bustle on Court 14.
After his Slam debut in New York with a five-set epic, Shelton backed it up with another in the first round here, earning his first major win over China’s Zhang Zhizhen in three hours and 31 minutes. After saluting on match point in the fifth-set tiebreaker, Shelton did the Gator Chop to a small entourage and some fans who were observing the match.
He then defeated Chilean qualifier Nicolas Jarry in straight sets in the second round before taking down Popyrin — and the raucous Aussie crowd at John Cain Arena — in the third. The Australian had form, defeating American No. 1 Taylor Fritz in the second round, but Shelton’s work rate, serve and speed was too much.
Following their match, Popyrin said that Shelton was “a force to be reckoned with” and could be in the top 10 in a matter of months. So how far can he go, at least in Melbourne? Well, Shelton’s path forward at the Australian Open is a relatively kind one.
Compatriot J.J. Wolf awaits in the fourth round. The pair have never met, but Wolf is ranked just 18 places above Shelton at No. 67 in the world. It’s another winnable match that could extend Shelton’s improbable run to a quarterfinal.
And given the seeds that have already fallen in his quarter of the draw (2-seed Ruud, 8-seed Fritz, 12-seed Alexander Zverev and 13-seed Matteo Berrettini), there’s no reason someone like Shelton can’t go even further. If things go well for him, waiting in the quarterfinal would be either Tommy Paul (another American, ranked No. 112) or Roberto Bautista Agut (ranked No. 24), who is coming off a five-set match in the second round, and a grueling four-setter against Andy Murray.
Monday’s clash with Wolf might not be the last we see of Shelton or the Gator Chop in Melbourne this year.