Rising stars from the United States feature prominently in the men’s side of the draw at the Australian Open, making up three of the eight players ithat reached reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne.
According to the ATP, it’s the first time since 2000 – when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Chris Woodruff reached the last eight – that three US players have made the Australian Open’s quarterfinals.
The most surprising – and certainly least known – name of the three is 20-year-old Ben Shelton, who before traveling to New Zealand and Australia in preparation for the first grand slam of the year had never even been outside of the US.
A big-hitting lefty, Shelton is playing in only his second major, with his first grand slam appearance coming at the US Open at the end of 2022.
The 20-year-old currently boasts a career-high ranking – world No. 89 – and his performances so far in Australia mean he is quickly closing in on a place in the top 50.
“He’s a big server, he has an unbelievable forehand where he can really put pressure on his opponents and dictate the players around,” Barbara Schett, a former professional tennis player and current commentator, told CNN Sports.
“He’s a left hander, which is a big advantage, and he has this lightness about him.”
Shelton certainly has the ideal background to help him succeed, as his father, Bryan Shelton, played tennis professionally on the ATP Tour, winning two titles, reaching a career-high ranking of 55 in the world and making the mixed doubles final of the French Open.
However, Shelton Sr. – who has been a successful coach in the States since retiring – initially struggled to convince his son to play tennis, with Ben favoring American Football as a youngster.
Ben did eventually decide to follow in his father’s footsteps and has spent the early years of his career developing his game at college and on the ATP Challenger circuit.
“He has a great combination of also being intense on the court and then he has his dad, Bryan Shelton, who used to be a player on the Tour for many, many years and it seems like he [Ben] has the right mindset and he knows exactly what he’s doing out there,” Schett said.
“It’s very refreshing to see somebody so young and new.”
Shelton’s first major breakthrough on the ATP Tour came at the Cincinnati Masters in August 2022, where he beat world no. 56 Lorenzo Sonego and then secured the first win of his career over a top five player, beating Casper Ruud in straight sets.
Shelton’s first taste of grand slam action came soon after, losing in the opening round of the US Open in a grueling five-setter against Portugal’s Nuno Borges.
However, he finished 2022 on the Challenger Tour with aplomb by reaching four finals out of six tournaments, winning three of them to end the year ranked inside the top 100.
Shelton had a mixed start to 2023, losing in qualifying at the Adelaide International before going on to secure another win over a top 50 opponent by beating Sebastian Baez in the first round in Auckland.
Despite the promise he has shown, few would have predicted the remarkable run Shelton has since enjoyed at the Australian Open.
“Definitely a surprise,” he told reporters of his success. “I got on the plane with no expectations. I know that it’s very hard to adjust to Australia from the United States just with the jet lag, time change and everything.
“It being my first time, never being out of the United States, I knew it would be a struggle. So I think it maybe has helped me a little bit kind of not having that expectation or the feeling that I have to perform, but being able to just go out there, be myself and play free.
“I think that’s been a big contribution to my success.”
The Atlanta native secured his first grand slam victory by getting the better of China’s Zhang Zhizhen in five sets, before he beat Chile’s Nicolas Jarry and then Australia’s Alexei Popyrin in straight sets.
On Monday, Shelton came through another brutal five-setter against compatriot J. J. Wolf – another rising US talent – to secure his place in the quarterfinals, where he will face another American in Tommy Paul.
Paul, who is an established top 50 player with an ATP title under his belt, has been ranked as high as No. 28 in the world and will be Shelton’s toughest test yet at the Australian Open.
Paul will no doubt be the favorite to reach the semifinals, but it will be hard to bet against Shelton continuing his dream run Down Under.
The 2023 season was already looking like a promising year for US tennis, but Shelton’s emergence has only further bolstered an exciting group of young future stars.
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