NCAA Football

Gators NCAA champion Ben Shelton is giving American fans hope with a surprise run to the Aussie quarter

Michelle Kaufman, Miami Herald

Unless you woke up before dawn to watch the Australian Open, or you happen to be a diehard Florida Gators tennis fan, you probably missed the rise of Ben Shelton, one of the most compelling stories in American tennis in a long time.

A year ago, Shelton was ranked No. 569 in the world and is preparing for his second season at the University of Florida, where his father, Bryan, a former pro who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, is the men’s tennis coach.

Shelton’s main goal at the time was to win the NCAA title, which he did last spring. The 6-4 lefty with tousled hair, a booming serve and all-around game took to the pro tour over the summer as a wild card entry and proved he belonged. He grabbed international headlines in mid-August after beating fifth-ranked French Open runner-up Casper Ruud 6–3, 6–3 at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.

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A week later, he wisely opted to forgo his final two years of college eligibility and turn professional, ahead of the US Open. His social media post that day read, “I’m going to continue my finance education online while traveling on tour. I can’t wait to get out there, expand my horizons and see what this next chapter has in store. Gator Nation, I will replicate worldwide. Chomp Chomp, Ben Shelton.”

Shelton now finds himself as one of three American men in the Australian Open quarterfinals, the first time three Americans have reached the last eight there since 2000. He is the first NCAA champion to make the following year’s Australian Open quarterfinals since Arthur Ashe in 1966.

His tournament earnings so far were $372,956 heading into his late Tuesday night match against American Tommy Paul.

Not bad for a guy who had never traveled outside the US until this month. Never used passport. Not even for vacation. He now has his first stamp.

Unlike other tennis parents who pull their kids out of school and send them overseas in search of junior ranking points, the Sheltons kept their son on American soil and insisted on education.

Bryan Shelton played at Georgia Tech and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering in 1989. He reached a career high of No. 55 in the world in 1992 and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1994. He went on to coach the women’s team at Georgia Tech and the men’s team at Florida, leading both to NCAA titles — the first person to accomplish that feat.

Lisa Witsken, Ben’s mother, played junior tennis and her brother Todd was a three-time All-American at USC. The Sheltons felt there were plenty of opportunities for their son to work on his game at home and have a balanced life.

Looks like they were right.

Take note, youth sports parents out there. If your child is talented enough, and works hard enough, there’s no need to forego education or max out the credit card, stalking the globe to chase a dream that may not come true.

Ben Shelton was 11 months old when former American star Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003. Seventy-five Grand Slam tournaments have been played since that day, and not one has been won by an American man.

It’s not a typo. Seventy five Grand Slams. Not a single American male champion. Roddick was the last.

Over the past two decades, Serena and Venus Williams have racked up major titles on the women’s side, and there have been male champions from Switzerland, Spain, Serbia, Argentina, Great Britain, Croatia, Austria and Russia. But none from the US.

Shelton, 20, is the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Roddick in 2001. For years, we’ve been waiting for “The Next Great American” to replace Roddick since his retirement.

The list of American men who dominated the sport in the Open era is impressive: Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Roddick.

Will an American man ever win a Slam title again?

Now there is hope. Ten Americans will be in the top 50 next week, including Shelton. Taylor Fritz in ninth place and Frances Tiafoe in 17th place lead the pack. Shelton, Paul and Sebastian Korda made the Aussie Open quarters this week.

Despite his lineage, Shelton never imagined he would become a professional tennis player. He called this week “a pinch-me moment.” He played tennis, basketball, soccer and football as a child, with soccer being his favorite. He played quarterback and was obsessed with college football, hanging out with Georgia Tech players while on campus with his dad.

But when he reached primary school, he switched from football to tennis.

“For the first 12 or 13 years of my life, I swore I would never play tennis,” he said courtside this week, wearing a huge smile. “It was my dad’s thing and I wanted to let him have it. Then I fell in love with the sport and here we are. Hopefully I can make a career out of it.”

Ben, that seems like a safe bet. Time will tell how far you go, but that passport is filling up.

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