Ben Shelton in his first full season on the ATP Tour has shown countless time he loves engaging with fans and harnessing their energy on the court. When at his best, he holds the crowd in the palm of his hand and not only competes, but entertains.
According to his father and coach, former World No. 55 Bryan Shelton, a key has been learning how to identify when to flip on his intensity.
“We always talk about switching it on and switching it off, and the ability to do those two things is really important. You think about Tiger Woods and he makes this amazing shot and then he kind of just glides down the fairway. He switches off until he has to get to the ball and assess the situation and then he switches back on and gets into his routine,” Shelton said. “For Ben, it’s like he’s so playful and he has all this personality, that he’s pretty good at switching on and switching off. It’s getting better and better.
“He’s able to relax and just be himself, and then when it’s time to really focus and turn it on, he’s able to do that a lot better right now.”
Even in pressure moments, Shelton has shown the ability to find the right mix. After two devastating double faults in the third-set tie-break of his quarter-final against Frances Tiafoe, the 20-year-old maintained his aggression and crushed a forehand return winner to avoid going down two sets to one.
“With Ben and his personality and just the way that he attacks life and tennis and everything, it’s always been about trying to rein him in, never about trying to get him to play outside,” Shelton said. “For me, it’s kind of the opposite. And I’d always prefer that it be this way, because it’s hard to get someone to want to step up when they’re naturally timid or shy or just not aggressive. For us, that’s never been a problem, not with Ben.”
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After Shelton reached the Australian Open quarter-finals at the beginning of the season, he did not win consecutive tour-level matches until this fortnight in New York. But where he struggled to string together wins, Shelton added something else.
“I think experience. Experience can be a wonderful thing, right?” Shelton said. “He’s gained a lot of great experience. He’s had to play on clay courts for a couple of months at a time, and so he’s learned a little bit more patience. He’s learned a little bit more about how to play defence. He’s learned his offence has to be really good on that type of surface in order to execute against the best players in the world.
“So he’s been able to work on those things. He’s understood that his return of serve wasn’t up to par. It’s a part of his game that he’s going to have to continue to improve and he’s worked really hard on that aspect of his game.”
For the Shelton family, it is not all about wins and losses, either. Before departing for his first trip of the season the former college tennis star at the University of Florida had never left the country, nor had he competed on red clay or grass. It has been a year of new experiences.
“Ben’s mom and I, [we are] super proud that he’s just handling himself so well. First off the court and then on the court. Our hope for him was that he would just continue to grow as a person and as a player out here on the Tour over the last year, and I think he’s done that,” Shelton said. “You learn a lot about yourself through the losses, probably more than the wins. So this season for him has been just a great learning experience. Travelling around the globe and going to places and playing on surfaces and just doing things he’s never done before.
“So for him, the education has been unbelievable. Along the way he’s been taking classes. So we’re proud of that, too.”
No matter what happens when Shelton walks onto the court inside Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday against 23-time major champion Novak Djokovic, he knows there will be plenty to learn and room to grow.
“I think he’s got amazing examples over this last 20-year stretch with Roger and Rafa and Novak, of guys that continually look to get better,” Shelton said. “So if those guys can look to get better every single day and they’re the standard of excellence at the very top of the game for a long period of time, like you’re talking about, that’s a good example for him to follow.”