Australian Open: Ben Shelton, the American With the Blinding Serve, Returns

It all started with a simple text message that, if Bryan Shelton’s memory serves him, went something like this:

“That coulda got really interesting,” wrote his then-20-year-old son, Ben, moments after he won a fifth-set tiebreaker against Zhizhen Zhang at last year’s Australian Open, clinching that first-round match.

Had it not been for that win, in a match that began in the morning and ended at night under the lights, during which Shelton survived a heat postponement, a rain delay and a match point, he might never have had the breakout season that he had last year.

“Not sure I remember it that way, because it did get kind of interesting,” said Shelton by phone shortly after he and his father traveled to Brisbane, Australia, from their Florida home in late December to begin the 2024 season with a pre-Australian Open warm-up tournament. Shelton did, however, recall the unreturnable serve he hit at 4-5, 30-40 down in the fifth set.

Shelton left last year’s Australian Open, his first trip abroad, as a quarterfinalist after succumbing to his friend and fellow American Tommy Paul. By season’s end, Shelton had reached the semifinals at the United States Open alongside the world’s top three players — Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev — and cracked the ATP’s top 15. The young American had begun 2023, his first full year on tour, ranked barely inside the top 100.

Shelton is still very much a work in progress. Despite a serve that topped out at 149 m.p.h. at last year’s U.S. Open, he struggled trying to adapt to clay and grass courts. It is something that he and his father, who left as head coach at the University of Florida last spring to coach his son full time, have worked on diligently during the off-season.

“The biggest thing for him is movement,” said Bryan Shelton, a tour player mostly in the 1990s. “It’s efficiency, being more balanced. The men’s game today is all about the serve and return and creating opportunities to come forward, which Ben can do.”

There is a delicate dance when parents coach their children, but the Sheltons have navigated it well. Ben played singles for his father during his freshman and sophomore years at Florida, clinching the Gators’ final point to win the 2021 N.C.A.A. team championship and winning the N.C.A.A. singles title a year later. Shortly after, he turned pro.

“It can be tricky at times, but every coach has to communicate well with his player,” said Bryan, adding that his son is the most competitive person he has ever met. “I just have to be aware that I am the dad and that some things he’ll receive well and some not. Sometimes it’s better to ask a question. That way he takes ownership of it and can stay in the zone. We call it paralysis by analysis.”

The Sheltons often communicate in staccato. A word or two from Bryan, courtside, is as effective as a lecture.

“I think I have a pretty good knowledge of tennis, the way I want to play, the way I want to compete,” said Ben, a college finance major who said he schedules weekly discussions with a venture capitalist who helped found his management agency. “Sometimes I don’t need a full sentence because I can use context clues and pick up on everything that my dad is trying to say. Sometimes it’s nicer to hear just one word and move on rather than have to listen to a whole spiel.”

Shelton is aware that he has critics, especially those who don’t appreciate his on-court bellowing or the phone-hang-up imitations during last year’s U.S. Open. But he has no intention of altering his behavior.

“I don’t know that you’re going to see anything different from me this year,” he said. “I just want to be my authentic self. I’m not going to change because of who’s out there or what people say.”

For Shelton, it’s all about progress.

“I’m just focused on improving my game, developing and pushing things forward,” he said shortly before heading to a practice session with Rafael Nadal, the one player Shelton wants most to play in a match. “I want to have a better year overall, a good body of work. The show goes on.”

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