Ben Shelton reached the 2023 Australian Open quarterfinals six months after turning pro and began his second year facing top seed Novak Djokovic in the 2023 U.S. Open semifinals, where he was ousted in a four-set tussle. On Sunday, the 21-year-old captured his first ATP Title, the Japan Open in Tokyo, justifying expectations that Big Ben is on course to become tennis’ next major superstar. Shelton defeated Russia’s Aslan Karatsev 7-6, 6-1 in the final, a victory that moved him from No. 19 to No. 15 in the world rankings.
“That victory meant a lot to me and my team,” Shelton said. “We’ve been working really hard since the beginning to build my game and win titles on the ATP Tour.” His team of assistants includes his father, former pro-Bryan Shelton, who resigned as the University of Florida’s men’s team coach to become his son’s full-time coach. Bryan, who reached a career-high World ranking of 55 in 1992, ended his playing career in 1997.
At 6-4, 205-pounds, Shelton plays with a mixture of quickness, power, and precision that’s dazzling to watch. His serve during the U.S. Open was clocked as high as 149 mph. He slapped forehand down-the-line winners and flipped forehand, topspin crosscourt winners with equal aplomb. He stumbled badly last week in his semifinal match against American qualifier Marcos Giron, losing the first set and was down two breaks in the second before a change in strategy helped him regain his focus. Shelton rallied to beat Giron 6-7 (2/7), 7-6 (7/5), 6-4.
“I knew that if I continued to keep playing the way I was, with the rhythm that he’d found, I was going to lose the match,” he said. “I was able to get him out of his rhythm for the three or four games that I needed to get myself back into the match. He called it “… one of the toughest matches that I’ve played in my career. “… the great champions, they win titles, they don’t just get to finals. They maintain their level throughout the week. I am not saying I am there yet, but to be able to do it for one week, put together five matches in a row, is really special.”
Tennis great John McEnroe saw Shelton’s potential for greatness at the Australian Open. “This guy has got more upside than any other American,” said McEnroe, who was 18 when he became the only amateur male to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in the Open Era, which began in 1968. “He’s going to be the real deal. He got a little cocky when he saw he’d hit a 149 mph serve (at the U.S. Open). I would be, too. He’s doing his thing.”
Though Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe were ranked above Shelton, McEnroe, captain of Team World, chose Shelton to play the opening match against Team Europe in the Laver Cup team competition last month in Vancouver. “His energy and attitude, that’s why we wanted him to be the first guy out to set the tone for the team, McEnroe said. “He’s got an incredible mentality and attitude for a team event.” Shelton beat France’s pro Arthur Fils 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 in the opening match, as Team World crushed Team Europe 13-2. “It was just perfect, that’s the first time we ever won the first match,” McEnroe said.
McEnroe high-fived and slapped hands with team members absorbed in Shelton’s infectious style. “I tend to play my best tennis when I’m having fun,” Shelton said. “Maybe some people would think the way I act on the court …. Is arrogance, but it’s just a kid having fun.”