Ben Shelton burst onto the professional tennis scene in 2022 after defeating Caspar Ruud at the Cincinnati Masters. Shortly after this, Shelton announced he was going professional and would be represented by an agent who is a part of Roger Federer’s management firm. Although Shelton lost in the first round of the US Open, he recorded the second fastest serve of the tournament which, at age 19, caught many people’s attention.
I remember at the time being mildly confused about all the attention that a newcomer to the tour was getting. He evidently had an insane serve and defeated a top-ten player in his first handful of matches, but he was still very much in fluke territory. My confusion was compounded in March this year, when Shelton starred in an ad campaign with Iga Świątek for On, a sportswear company where Federer is a shareholder. Świątek was a multiple grand slam winner and Shelton had just been eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
The fluke allegations followed Shelton through the French Open and Wimbledon, where he was eliminated in the first and second rounds respectively. It seemed as though Shelton was saving his best performance for his home crowds, as it was the 2023 US Open where Shelton cemented his reputation as tennis’ new wunderkind.
Although he lost the first set of his first game 6-1, Shelton went on to make a confident run to the semi-finals. He was aided by Dominic Theim’s retirement in the second round, but went on to impressively defeat his compatriots Tommy Paul and Francis Tiafoe. The current cohort of American players is the most promising and exciting that the country has had in some time, and Shelton’s victory over Tiafoe cemented him as the leader of the charge of the return to greatness for American men’s tennis. Reaching the semis also meant that Shelton became the youngest American man to reach the last four at the US since Michael Chang in 1992.
Shelton’s biggest challenge came in the semi-final, where he played Novak Djokovic. Earlier on in the year, Shelton had said it was his ambition to “be that dude in the draw that there’s not one player who wants to see me”, and Djokovic is ‘that dude’ now. Shelton lost in three sets to the eventual champion. Djokavic had something to prove against the perhaps overly confident young guns. Shelton did not let this high-profile defeat deter him, and in October completed two impressive runs at the Shanghai Masters and Japanese Open, winning the latter and thus earning his maiden ATP title.
The 2023 season has shown that Shelton has the confidence, support, and ability to make an impact in grand slams. The 2024 season will show whether he can bring all three elements together and become the first male American grand slam winner since Andy Roddick in 2003 — the year after Shelton was born.