It used to be that pundits could fill airtime by wailing about the decline of American men’s tennis, post-Andy Roddick. I’m hoping that trend is dead. Because every summer I look over and a new kid is tearing up the hard-court season, planting themselves firmly in tennis’s upper-middle class.
Right now there are 13 Americans ranked in the top 100, eight of whom are age 25 or under, with plenty of upside left. Taylor Fritz, Indian Wells champ and frequent joke apologist, leads the pack at No. 13, with a diverse group in tow, including but not limited to the infinitely lovable Frances Tiafoe, athletic grinder Tommy Paul, servebot Reilly Opelka, serve-and-volley throwback Maxime Cressy, and trickster demon Jenson Brooksby. Some of these dudes even turned pro after a stint in college. The latest such case might be Ben Shelton, reigning NCAA singles champ at the University of Florida, who made a quick exploratory hop over to the big leagues and has already wrecked the No. 5 player in the world this week at the Cincinnati Open.
A 19-year-old lefty whose dad, Bryan, is a former world No. 55 and current men’s tennis coach at Florida, Ben has all the tools needs. He has that roughly ideal 6-foot-4 build that optimizes for mobility and big serving. He’s got the light-footed movement and soft hands to support a ranging all-court game, and both his groundstrokes are too solid to attack. His shot selection skews toward the bold. Aside from good results, these qualities also add up to high entertainment. (That’s a relief, because we’ve just survived a generation of no-backhand American stiffs intent on proving that those qualities—winning and watchability—do not always overlap.)
Young Ben is also ascending pretty damn quickly, by playing an astonishing amount of tennis. In July, he played through the qualifying rounds to make the final of the Challenger in Rome, Georgia; he made another Challenger final in Chicago; in between, he narrowly lost in three sets to John Isner at the Atlanta Open, where he got his first pro-level victory. The previous flagbearer of American men’s tennis, 37-year-old Isner is a believer, and just old enough to not become a frequent victim: “Truthfully, I don’t see myself beating him anytime in the future. I hope I don’t have to play him again.”
Shelton’s efforts in July were enough to earn a wild card to the Cincinnati, a 1,000-level event, marking a severe jump up in competition level as he took on the best players alive. Shelton eliminated the talented if slumping world No. 56 Lorenzo Sonego in three sets. His second-round opponent was by far the best player he’s ever faced in formal competition: world No. 5 and French Open finalist Casper Ruud. Ben took him out, 6-3, 6-3, with the kind of explosive shot-making that will hopefully become his signature as a pro:
Father and son are also being cute about it. “I kind of look at him still as a kid and you see him playing these grown men,” Bryan told Cincinnati.com, with his son heading into the third round. He added, referencing his own Cincinnati results: “I think the second round’s the best I ever did. I knew where you were going with that. I think we’re gonna be able to say that in the future about a lot of different things, but he hasn’t won any tour titles yet. I’ve won two.” Said Ben, “I know that he has two top-5 wins and I only have one. He’s got me in that category.” Their surreal week ended on Thursday night, as Shelton was evaporated 6-0, 6-2 by world No. 11 Cam Norrie in their third-round meeting. But soon enough, Ben might be quitting dad’s little college team to chase the bag.
After all, the younger Shelton has won $29,485 with his summer success heading into Cincinnati, plus $84,510 for his third-round showing this week. He’ll also get the wild card into the U.S. Open main draw typically granted to the college singles champ, where a first-round appearance pays out $75,000 in prize money—but in predictably stupid NCAA fashion, Ben can pocket all of the year’s winnings only if he forfeits his college eligibility. Ben said he’ll decide his fate at some point before the Open. It’s admittedly pretty hard for me to imagine any 19-year-old going back to class after beating the No. 5 tennis player in the world.