Ben Shelton, the American with the dazzling serve, returns to the open

It all started with a simple text message that, if Bryan SheltonHis memory still serves him, and it went something like this:

“That could have been very interesting,” his then-20-year-old son, Ben, wrote shortly after winning a fifth-set tiebreak against Zhizhen Zhang last year at the Australian Open, where he decided the match in the first round.

If it hadn’t been for that victory, in a match that started in the morning and ended in the evening under the floodlights, in which Shelton After surviving a heat delay, a rain delay and a match point, he may never have had the breakout season he had last year.

“I’m not sure I remember it like that, because it did “It’s getting a little interesting,” Shelton said by phone shortly after he and his father traveled from their home in Florida to Brisbane, Australia, in late December to start the 2024 season with a warm-up tournament in preparation for the Australian Open. Shelton did, however, recall the unreturnable serve he hit at 4-5, 30-40 down in the fifth set.

Shelton left last year’s Australian Open, his first trip abroad, as a quarterfinalist after succumbing to the death of friend and fellow American Tommy Paul. By the end of the season, Shelton had reached the semifinals of the United States Open, alongside the world’s top three players – Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev – and cracked the ATP’s top 15. The young American had entered 2023, his first full year on the tour, barely ranked inside the top 100.

Shelton is still a work in progress. Despite a serve that topped out at 149 mph at last year’s U.S. Open, he’s struggled to adapt to both clay and grass courts. It’s something he and his father, who left his head coaching job at the University of Florida last spring to coach his son full-time, have been working diligently on during the offseason.

“The biggest thing for him is movement,” said Bryan Shelton, a tour player who played mostly in the ’90s. “It’s efficiency, being more balanced. The men’s game now is about the serve and return and creating opportunities to get forward, which Ben can do.”

There’s a delicate dance when parents coach their kids, but the Sheltons have done it well. Ben played singles for his dad his freshman and sophomore years at Florida, helping the Gators score the final point to win the 2021 NCAA team championship and winning the NCAA singles title a year later. He turned pro shortly after.

“It can be tough at times, but every coach has to communicate well with his player,” Bryan said, adding that his son is the most competitive person he has ever met. “I just have to be aware that I am the father and that he will receive some things well and others not. Sometimes it’s better to ask a question. That way he takes ownership of it and can stay in the zone. We call it paralysis by analysis.”

The Sheltons often communicate staccato. A word or two from Bryan, courtside, is as effective as a lecture.

“I think I have a pretty good understanding of tennis, the way I want to play, the way I want to compete,” said Ben, a finance major at the university who said he schedules weekly meetings with a venture capitalist who helped found his management firm. “Sometimes I don’t need a full sentence because I can use context clues and pick up everything my dad is trying to say. Sometimes it’s better to just hear one word and move on than to have to listen to a whole story.”

Shelton is aware he has critics, especially those who don’t like his on-court bluster or hang-up phone imitations during last year’s U.S. Open. But he has no intention of changing his behavior.

“I don’t know if you’ll see anything different from me this year,” he said. “I just want to be my authentic self. I’m not going to change because of who’s out there or what people say.”

For Shelton, it’s all about progress.

“I’m just focused on improving my game, developing and pushing things forward,” he said shortly before heading to a training session with Rafael Nadal, the player Shelton most wants to feature in a match. “I want a better year in general, a good body of work. The show goes on.”

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