By Giri Nathan
I thought Ben Shelton could be good; I didn’t think that suspicion would be confirmed so soon, and so loudly. Figured he had the game to make Slam quarterfinals—someday. But the 20-year-old flew right into the second week of the Aussie Open in January, with a little help from a soft draw. That would have been hard to envision at the start of last year, when he was a sophomore at the University of Florida, coached by his dad (and former world No. 55) Bryan Shelton, closing in on an eventual NCAA singles title. In the summer he reeled off three straight Challenger titles and an upset win over then-world No. 5 Casper Ruud in Cincinnati. He took a wild card into the US Open, grinded out a five-set loss, and chose to go pro. That decision looks smarter by the day. With his second-ever appearance in a major, which was also his first-ever trip outside the country(!), Ben already surpassed Pop’s top ranking and presently sits at No. 41. He takes online courses now. If he misses campus life, clearing $383K in a week should dull the pain.
February was dim—first-round losses in Delray Beach and Acapulco—but Shelton is back to winning in his first foray into the desert. The entire population of Indian Wells, Calif., apparently turned out to watch him wave off Fabio Fognini in their first-round matchup, 6–4, 6–1. But then U.S. tennis fans have never exactly been the type to slow-roll their expectations. Every three months there seems to be another new American popping off on the ATP, but Shelton has some bonus firepower that could separate him from his talented cohort. To put it concisely: He’s a servebot with sauce. Over the past 52 weeks, he ranks fourth in tour in terms of service games won, at 90 percent. In particular that lefty slice is pure malice, and it wants nothing to do with the court, fleeing out and away. Ben backs up a deep bag of fiendish serves with swifter movement than most can muster at 6 foot 4, a commanding forehand, and bold transition game. So if he is a servebot, then he is one outfitted for the next generation of tennis athleticism. (The bot of old, John Isner, who beat him last summer in Atlanta, welcomed his obsolescence: “Truthfully, I don’t see myself beating him anytime in the future. I hope I don’t have to play him again.”)
Ben has eased into tour life without losing touch with his old self. On court he exudes college bro, with respect to hemline, haircut, and self-exhortations. Not every professional opponent will be charmed by this ceaseless stream of “yeeEEEEEAH” and “let’s go” and “come on.” Judging by Fabio Fognini’s saline handshake at the net, he wasn’t having it. But that’s just Fabio on a good day, too. This was an encouraging performance from Shelton against a veteran who can easily hoodwink an inexperienced foe via languorous shotmaking and emotional terrorism. Especially noteworthy was Shelton’s rally tolerance. Few players on tour can change up pace like Fognini, and the rookie was confident enough to try some tricks of his own, once luring the Italian to the net and curling a nasty topspin lob overhead. The serve will always be there; that’s the bedrock. If his court craft comes along, Shelton can go anywhere. Next up in round 2 is defending champ and countryman Taylor Fritz. Stadium 1 has a capacity of 16,100 and those two will hear every decibel of it.
Above: Ben Shelton celebrates his first round victory at Indian Wells. (Getty)