Everything is moving fast for Ben Shelton. When we checked in last August, the young American had just beaten the No. 5 player in the world—a pretty sleazy Casper Ruud—and was deciding whether to forfeit his NCAA eligibility. Then came the verdict: no college.
Next up was a trip to the US Open, his first major tournament, as a wild card. I spoke with Shelton a few days after he lost his first round fight there; he said he was headed for a month-long training block before competing in the Challengers, which is a step below the pro tour. The feedback was immediate: Shelton won three Challenger titles in three weeks, becoming the first player ever to do so, and broke into the top 100 before the end of the year. At the start of this season, it was time for him to go to Australia and compete in his second ever major tournament. Again with immediate success: The 20-year-old reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. Shelton lost that match on Wednesday to American Tommy Paul, 7-6(6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, but his career is moving faster than the most optimistic onlookers could have expected. He had not left the United States before this trip.
The 6-foot-4 Shelton, an absolute unit whose lively lefty style elicits smiles from viewers (and just as often from himself), was one of four American men to enter the fourth round and one of three to enter the quarterfinals. He was far from the most likely in his cohort to make a deep run. No. 8 seed Taylor Fritz and No. 16 seed Frances Tiafoe, both convincing got their shit together last season, spun out in the second and third rounds respectively. (An ongoing meme suggests that Fritz’s participation in the latest Netflix show convicted him, along with a few others.)
Shelton benefited from an unusually soft course at this Open, facing no seeded players and until the quarter-finals no players ranked in the top 60. His most impressive win along the way was a straight sets victory over an in-form Alexei Popyrin, Aussie , who had two wins over top-10 players this month. Zooming out, Shelton shouldn’t expect future majors to feel so smooth, but his job is only to play against one guy in front of him, and the tennis he produced was spectacular.
If it wasn’t already decisive when he went punch-for-punch with John Isner in Atlanta last year, it’s clear now: Shelton has one of the greatest serves of his generation. Before Paul broke in the second set of their quarterfinal, Shelton had won 68 straight service games at the Australian Open. He also holds the record for the fastest single serve at this tournament, at 228 km/h (142 mph). Unlike most serve-dominant players, Shelton can really move, scramble and improvise. Like most players with the dominant serve, his return game needs deep rehabilitation. But in the meantime, the constant tiebreaks suit him just fine. His athleticism gives him greater upside than the usual serve-and-forehand-mashers – he can win points in multiple ways, rather than a few compulsive patterns – and it’s also much easier on the eyes.
A string of ranking points from a major tournament can financially and logistically transform any young career. This Australian Open run will push Shelton into the top 50 in the world and give him access to just about any tournament he might want to play this season. His tennis prospects are unrecognizable from what they were last summer, when he was deciding what to do with college — he’s now taking online classes for a business degree — and he’s still only a few months into his professional life. Shelton said after his loss that he looks forward to hitting the red clay “to use the higher bounces to my advantage, move, slide.” The grass season is an even more obvious fit for his game. Realistically, I don’t suspect he’ll have another big quarter-final in him for a while, but he’ll bounce back eventually, and last year’s decision only looks smarter with each passing week.