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Whether the crowds are for him or against him, Ben Shelton is enjoying the ride into the big time
On his don’t-sweat-the-mistakes attack, and his dominant third-round win over Australian Alexei Popyrin.
Published Jan 21, 2023
The Break: Get to know American standout Ben Shelton
There are lots of firsts in Ben Shelton’s life these days. The 20-year-old Atlanta native won his first ATP match last summer. He won his first match at a major last week. And on Saturday, he heard a new and surprising sound coming from the 10,000-odd fans who were packed into John Cain Arena.
“They kind of set the tone when I walked on court, and I got booed,” Shelton said with a laugh. “First time at a pro match that that’s happened. It was unreal.”
Shelton may have been amazed by the antagonistic greeting—isn’t this supposed to be the Happy Slam?—but he wasn’t fazed. After all, he was going up against one of the crowd’s countrymen, Alexei Popyrin.
“I can always respect a whole country getting behind their guy, so it was really cool to see.”
Unfortunately for Popyrin and his many supporters, Shelton is an old hand at silencing noisy, confrontational crowds. He spent two years playing college tennis for the University of Florida, turning pro after his sophomore year, and according to him, he’s always been a road warrior.
“When the whole crowd is for you, you feel this expectation that you have to deliver,” he says. “I find it easy to play free when the crowd is coming at you and being aggressive. I enjoy that hostile atmosphere.”
Shelton was as good as his word in his 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-4 win on Saturday. Every time Popyrin made the slightest inroad, or had the slightest lead in one of the American’s service games, the crowd came to life and tried to steer the momentum his way. But Shelton always had the answer. It might have been a 140 m.p.h. serve—he has hit the two fastest at the tournament—to save a break point. Or a quick and surprising drop shot to level a game at 30-30. Or a go-for-broke forehand that caught the outside of the line and left Popyrin staring open-mouthed in disbelief. It might be a combination of all of those shots in one point.
Popyrin was certainly impressed; he said Shelton could be Top 10 within six months.
“What’s good about him is that he has a feel for what’s happening in the room,” Australian coach and commentator Roger Rasheed said of Shelton’s court sense and shot selection.
What’s also good, for Shelton and tennis fans who like dynamic shot-making, is how proactive he is. He doesn’t return serve from a mile behind the baseline; he moves forward and launches himself into the shot. He doesn’t settle for rally balls and play positional tennis; every swing is an attack, whether he’s dropping the ball short or hammering it to a corner.
Even better, for U.S. tennis fans who are waiting for that next homegrown Grand Slam contender, Shelton has a world-class weapon in his lefty serve. Against Popyrin, he won a sky-high 87 percent of his first-serve points, and was never broken.
“This was the first match where I really felt like, ‘Wow, I’m on, everything is clicking, and I feel good about my game. I’m moving really well,’” Shelton said.
“I told myself that I wanted to give myself more of a green light today when I played, not be as hesitant in the middle of the points, but really go for my shots a bit more, and be OK with some errors and know that it was going to pay off in the long run.”
Shelton’s green-light attitude reflects the current trends in the men’s game. In the era of Carlos Alcaraz, forehand-based, first-strike, don’t-sweat-the-mistakes tennis has begun to eclipse the steady-as-she-goes style that took Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to the top of the rankings. You could see some of that shift in Sebastian Korda’s win over Daniil Medvedev on Friday. Korda’s new-school attack was too much for Medvedev’s old-school defense.
Is Shelton’s Melbourne run also a sign of a shift in the hierarchy of U.S. men’s tennis? Before the tournament began, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe were the most likely to succeed Down Under. Now, entering the fourth round, Fritz and Foe are gone, while Korda, Shelton, J.J. Wolf, and Tommy Paul remain.
At 20, Shelton is the youngest of them; does he also have the most upside? Popyrin was certainly impressed; he said Shelton could be Top 10 within six months.
We’ll see. He has been a powerful force through the first week, but he has yet to face a seed, and he won’t in his next match, when he goes up against his friend and fellow college-tennis alum, Wolf. For now, whether the fans are for him or against him, Shelton is enjoying the ride into the big time.
“Definitely a few moments today where I was looking around, like, ‘Wow, this stadium is pretty packed,’” Shelton said. “It was unbelievable. I definitely wouldn’t have thought that I would be here in this moment six months ago, [or even] four months ago.”