On his first overseas trip, Shelton is living the dream

Ben Shelton came to Australia with a pretty touristy wishlist for his first international trip. The 20-year-old American wanted to “go see some animals…koalas or kangaroos, something like that”.

Koala, check. Wallaby, check. Australian Open quarter-final, check.

The last bit wasn’t part of the plan, a “dream” he’ll also take home now apart from the memories of his trip.

Shelton edged past fellow American JJ Wolf 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 6-2 in the fourth round on Monday to be among the last eight men in Melbourne in just his second Grand Slam. Sure, the draw has been kind on the world No 89—Shelton went past unseeded Zhang Zhizhen (Round 1), Nicolas Jarry (Round 2) and Alexei Popyrin (Round 3)—but for a recently-turned pro playing his first tournament outside his home country, the second week of a Slam is not where he would have expected to be.

The southpaw from Atlanta certainly did not when his passport had been stamped for the first time earlier this month in Adelaide, where he crashed out in the opening qualifying round of the ATP 250 event.

“Yeah, definitely a surprise,” Shelton said of his Australian Open run. “I got on to the plane with no expectations. I know it’s very hard to adjust to Australia from the United States… being my first time and never out of the United States, I knew it’ll be a struggle.

“It maybe has helped me a little bit, not having that feeling that I have to perform. Just go out there, be myself and play free.”

Shelton carries the sport in his genes. His father, Bryan, was a former world No 55 pro; his mother is the sister of Todd Witsken, the ex-doubles world No 4; his elder sister is in the University of Florida women’s tennis team. Shelton was part of the university’s 2021 NCAA men’s championship team and also lifted the singles collegiate crown last year. It helped that his father, the “biggest influence” in his young tennis career, coaches at University of Florida.

“It wasn’t an easy street for him, so he knows all the struggles of making it out here. It’s priceless to be able to have that knowledge and that person to go to,” Shelton said.

Turning pro after the 2022 NCAA singles title, Shelton played 11 Challenger events last year, all of them in the US. He won three and reached three other finals to make the rankings jump from 547th in May. In his home ATP Tour debut in Atlanta in July, he beat India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan in the first round before losing to compatriot John Isner. A month later in his first ATP Masters in Cincinnati, the then 229th-ranked Shelton stunned world No 56 Lorenzo Sonego and world No 5 Casper Ruud in the opening two rounds.

The promising talent was handed a wild card into the US Open main draw, where Shelton went down to Portuguese Nuno Borges in a five-set first round. In the six months from Flushing Meadows to Melbourne Park where his life has flipped as dramatically as his first outing outside of the US shores, Shelton believes the biggest change has been in his body.

To go with a big serve—he won 82% points on first serve on Monday—and a damaging forehand—26 of his 31 groundstroke winners came from that wing—Shelton felt “energetic” in his legs in the fifth set against Wolf, even after riding the “many swings throughout the match”.

“I’m in a good place, physically, since the last Slam I played at the US Open where I was really struggling after five sets in the heat,” he said. “I’ve worked real hard in the last 5-6 months to be where I want to be (physically). I’m still not there, but I’m young and have time. I can make it there.”

He could also well make it to the Australian Open semi-finals—he faces another American, Tommy Paul—but he’s already relishing the “pretty special week” in Melbourne. Back home, meanwhile, his school has begun. Time to call the professors to get out of that for this week? “It’s just a few assignments here and there—pretty easy stuff,” Shelton said.

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