Showman Shelton Finds His Biggest Stage Yet
One word to describe Ben Shelton’s game is electric. From his thunderbolt serve to his aggressive game style, the 20-year-old brings everything that a fan would want to watch in a tennis match. His magnetic smile and willingness to involve the crowd have made him a showstopper.
Part of the Shelton box-office package at this US Open has been a signature celebration. After winning his matches, the former University of Florida star has pretended to pick up the phone and listened for a moment before slamming it back on the receiver.
“Our home phone when I was growing up in Atlanta was one like that. If I wanted to talk to my friends or call their home phone, see if they wanted to go outside and throw a football, that was what I did,” Shelton said. “But for me it's kind of like I'm saying I'm dialled in.”
Shelton explained that the celebration was inspired by another former Gator, Grant Holloway, a track star who has won several world championships in events including the 110-metre hurdles and the 60-metre hurdles.
“For me, when I pick up the phone, it's kind of just letting everybody know I can hear you talk," Holloway told ATPTour.com. "Just know I'm always going to answer and I'm always going to deliver. As Ben said, you stay dialled in.
"Obviously, on that day, anything can happen. So it's just one of the things where we just let everybody know, you can say whatever you want about me. But at the end of the day, I've got to go out there and compete and I'm going to stay dialled in no matter what.”
Photo: Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour
Holloway became friends with Shelton through his brother, another Florida track star, MJ Holloway. They would grab food, chat and inspire one another to chase greatness. It has been “amazing” for Holloway, who won the 110-metre world championship two weeks ago, to watch his friend take the US Open by storm. Now the 2022 NCAA singles winner will face 23-time major titlist Novak Djokovic for a place in the final.
“When you have a close friend ripping up the scenes on the tennis court and playing some of the idols that we used to joke around with [each other about], I think it's pretty remarkable because he's living out his dream,” Holloway said. “I think most people get caught in the hype, obviously, when they're young, when they start to play some of the idols. They start to respect them too much.
“I was one of those people before, so it's my goal to really challenge him and tell him, 'Respect is earned and not given.' So really, just to go out there and just to demand respect on his name.”
One thing nobody will need to worry about is whether Shelton will walk onto the court inside Arthur Ashe Stadium ready for a battle.
“He's a fierce competitor. Obviously you guys are starting to know that now. But obviously his close friends always knew it was only a matter of time until he busted on the scene,” Holloway said. “[He needs to] continue just to believe, continue to stay dialed in and it's just one of the things where it's only a matter of time until he's at the top spot.”
Shelton’s competitive fire is nothing new. The American has shown it since well before tennis was his main focus. Kenny Thorne grew up competing with Ben’s father and coach, Bryan Shelton. They both played at Georgia Institute of Technology, went out on the ATP Tour and eventually coached at their alma mater, where Thorne led — and still is the head coach of — the men’s team and Shelton the women’s.
Thorne vividly remembers tennis camps at Georgia Tech where Ben, who was not yet 10, would leave his mark in team tennis competitions.
“He was just this little 10-and-under kid and we had [kids] all the way up to age 18. And you could hear him from point one. His whole team somehow was fired up by this little 10-year-old out there competing, and he honestly just loved competing,” Thorne said. “I know he played a lot of other sports and did a lot of things. But when it came to competition, you tried to get some people to embrace it. He just naturally embraced it. He loved the moment, he loved being out there. And it wasn't about him being the centre of attention. It was just that he enjoyed it.”
Bryan Shelton became the head men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida in 2013 and at the time, Ben still played other sports, including football and baseball. One of Shelton’s assistant coaches, Scott Perelman, would watch Ben play football and marvel at his fearlessness taking on players twice his size.
“His enthusiasm for life, his competitive spirit, his athleticism have always been somewhat off the charts,” Perelman said. “And once he grew into that body of his, as you can see, one special thing after another started happening.”
There are many pieces of Shelton’s tennis that stand out, especially his monstrous serve. But how he handles big moments is almost as important. Many players need years of experience to grow accustomed to the pressures of playing in front of thousands of fans in a stadium and millions across the world. Shelton handles the pressure like he’s been dealing with it for decades. Part of the reason why is the joie de vivre with which he plays.
“This is not work to him, this is like a joy to him,” Perelman said. “And you can see it with the way he plays, the way he handles himself, the way he deals with pressure. It just puts him in a pretty, pretty rare air in my opinion.”
The Thorne family and Shelton family remain close, and Kenny has watched Ben grow from camper to world-class player, and even coached against him at the college level in individual tournaments when Shelton competed for his father’s team at Florida.
“I know he loves the game of tennis, but I think he loves competing as much or more than any of the sports,” Thorne said. “You can tell when somebody enjoys competing. And you can tell when people shy away from it. And he's never shied away from a young age from competing. And that's something that I don't think you can really teach.”
So when Shelton stands across the net from Djokovic on Friday evening, he will pick up the phone and dial in for work. He may or may not win, but there is no doubt the lefty will leave it all out there.
“Ben is a generational talent, obviously, we all see that,” Holloway said. “This is one of the things now where he continues to shock the world.”