Sudden Impact: Shelton Surging On Challenger Tour
As the sun set on a brutally humid evening in Atlanta late last month, a young American star was rising in front of Tour-veteran John Isner’s eyes: 19-year-old Ben Shelton. The 6’ 10” six-time tournament champion and former World No. 8 toiled for two hours, 24 minutes before eking out a 7-6(8), 4-6, 7-6(3) victory, that left a strong impression on the elder statesman of American tennis.
“He’s an incredible talent. I watched him play a-year-and-a-half ago in college and saw how athletic and talented he is,” Isner said. “I’m going to be a big fan of his in the future… Truthfully, I don’t see myself beating him anytime in the future. I hope I don’t have to play him again.”
Two weeks before his Tour-level debut, Shelton made his first ATP Challenger Tour final in Rome, Georgia, but fell short against China’s then-highest-ranked player, Wu Yibing.
The teenager has been building upon his NCAA singles title in May, reaching four semi-finals of the five Challenger Tour events in which he has competed. A week after completing his sophomore season at the University of Florida, the lefty reached the last four at the Challenger Tour event in Little Rock, Arkansas (just the second of his career).
"When I went to Little Rock, I started to believe more in myself and my abilities, that I could hang with the guys that are ranked 150 in the world or 250 in the world and that gave me a little confidence.”
His current semi-final run in Chicago (he plays Dutchman Gijs Brouwer Saturday) includes a quarter-final victory over former World No. 43 Jordan Thompson and will bring Shelton to a career-high mark inside the Top 250 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings on Monday.
"(The Challenger Tour) gives you an opportunity to see tennis from guys who are playing at a Top 100 level. It's a lot of different types of competition and it sets you up for playing on the ATP Tour. It's a really good stepping stone and the level isn't that far off from ATP.”
Coached by his father, Bryan Shelton, a former World No. 55 and current head coach of the University of Florida men’s tennis team, Ben credits his dad for much of his collegiate and pro success. Growing up in a tennis family can lead to immense pressure and high expectations, but for the Sheltons, it’s been an exciting journey.
“It's been a lot of fun. It’s become a really good situation where (my dad) doesn't even have to tell me things and I know what he's thinking or he knows what I'm thinking. He’s really helped me work on developing my game and not worry about quick success, but being in it for the long run,” the teen said.
The former Florida High School Athletic Association singles champion resided in Atlanta until he was 10, at which time the family moved to Gainesville, Florida, so it was fitting that his first Tour-level win came this past month in Georgia’s capital, where he took out Indian Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 7-5.
Known for his blistering serve, athleticism, and firepower, the college standout is getting ready for the two biggest tournaments of his life after being awarded wild cards to the ATP Masters 100 event in Cincinnati and the US Open.
Shelton played in the US Open qualifying last year, where he was ousted by eventual quarter-finalist, Botic Van de Zandschulp.
"I'm really excited, I was fortunate enough to play the qualifying last year and that was a great experience to get my feet wet. I'm glad the USTA has been able to help me out and I'm grateful they gave me a wild card.”