US tennis star Ben Shelton doesn’t want to ‘put a ceiling’ on what he can achieve

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Ben Shelton enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2023 – his first full season as a pro.OnCNN — 

About this time last year, Ben Shelton was an up-and-coming tennis player taking his first-ever trip outside the United States.

Not long out of college, Shelton was relatively unknown on the circuit having only been pro for the past six months. But armed with a lethal serve and the fearlessness of youth, things were about to change – fast.

“I feel like it went from nobody knowing me to a lot of people knowing me kind of overnight,” Shelton tells CNN Sport. “It felt really quick.”

Skip ahead 12 months and the 21-year-old American is in Australia preparing to play in his sixth grand slam and second at Melbourne Park.

At this point in his young career, Shelton’s results have been excellent: he reached the quarterfinals of last year’s Australian Open and went a step further at the US Open, eventually losing to Novak Djokovic in a fiery semifinal. Several weeks after that, he won his first ATP Tour title in Japan.

It figures, then, that Shelton enters his second full season as a professional tennis player with weighty expectations.

“He could cut his ranking in half,” tennis coach and broadcaster Brad Gilbert recently told CNN, “and I think he’s going to be the first American [man] potentially to win a slam since Andy Roddick.”

Sep 5, 2023; Flushing, NY, USA; Ben Shelton of the United States celebrates after match point against Frances Tiafoe of the United States (not pictured) on day nine of the 2023 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Shelton celebrates winning match point against Frances Tiafoe in the 2023 US Open quarterfinals.Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

It’s now been just over 20 years since Roddick triumphed at the US Open, and Shelton is the latest American looking to end that drought. He is currently 16th in the world rankings and has the company of compatriots Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe in the top 20.

Shelton, however, is coy about his ambitions for the year ahead.

“I feel like no matter what you say in the press, someone’s going say: ‘Oh, you shot too high or you shot too low,’” he says.

“So I’m going to keep my result-based goals between me and my team … I don’t have anything in my mind that I’m really setting out for yet. I feel like I don’t want to put a ceiling on myself and what I can achieve. I just want to take things one step at a time and see where I am at the end of this year.”

Shelton’s career path to date has been unconventional. Football was his primary passion until the age of 12 or 13, and despite his family pedigree – Shelton’s dad and uncle were professional tennis players, while his mom was an accomplished junior – he was under no pressure to take up the sport himself.

It was only after seeing his sister travel to tournaments across the country that Shelton was convinced to take tennis more seriously and begin his rise through the junior ranks.

USA's Ben Shelton holds the champion's trophy during the awards ceremony of the ATP Japan Open tennis tournament in Tokyo on October 22, 2023. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

Shelton won his first ATP Tour title at the Japan Open after defeating Aslan Karatsev in the final.Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

But even in a sport that loves to celebrate teenage champions – Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff and Emma Raducanu, for example – Shelton decided to spend his formative years closer to home. He enrolled at the University of Florida, where his dad was the coach, and went on to win the NCAA singles title in 2022.

“There’s not one path for everybody, and I don’t think that my path is perfect, but it really worked for me,” says Shelton. “At this point, at 21 years old, I feel fairly fresh. I haven’t been out here that long. I don’t feel burned out at all.

“Tennis can be a grueling sport with the schedule and amount of travel, so I’m glad that I got a little bit of a later start. I don’t feel like I have too many miles on my body yet.”

On the court, Shelton is physical and powerful. A six-foot-four left-hander, his serve is his most dangerous weapon – “a rocket shooting up off the ground,” according to Scott Perelman, a coach at the University of Florida.

At last year’s US Open, Shelton hit two serves at 149 miles per hour in his fourth-round match – just three miles per hour short of the tournament record, which is owned by Roddick.

But the Georgia native doesn’t want to be seen as a one-dimensional, serve-smashing automaton, and he believes that he arrives at the Australian Open as a far more accomplished player compared to last season.

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Shelton prepares to hit a serve at last year’s US Open.On

“I feel like I’m worlds ahead of where I was a year ago,” he says. “I’m much more solid from the baseline. I think I’m also more comfortable taking away time and coming forward to the net.

“But I’d say the biggest factor is probably my movement. I think I’m a much better mover and player out of the corners, and when moving hard side to side and forward and backwards.”

Shelton has been coached by his father, Bryan, since June last year. Even at the age of 19, the former Georgia Tech and Florida coach said that he could see how his son was “a different animal” than he was during his playing days, and the younger Shelton has so far been enjoying their player-coach relationship.

“There’s no other person in the world who knows me better, what makes me tick, the things that I’m good at, the things I need to improve on,” he says.

They will both be hoping for another deep run at this year’s Australian Open, which begins on Sunday, or even to eclipse Shelton’s semifinal showing at last year’s US Open, where he gained as much attention for his now-iconic hanging-up-the-phone celebration as he did his gutsy play.

The dramatized slamming down of the receiver is a way, Shelton explained at the time, of saying that he’s “dialed in.” Even Djokovic ended up copying it, teasingly or otherwise.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 08: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates his victory against Ben Shelton of the United States during their Men's Singles Semifinal match on Day Twelve of the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 08, 2023 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Djokovic mimics Shelton’s celebration after their quarterfinal match at the US Open.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The US Open and the maiden title in Tokyo that followed rounded off an enormously successful first year as a pro for Shelton – and with success came marketability.

In March, it was announced that Shelton had signed a sponsorship deal with Swiss sportswear brand On, the company’s first foray into tennis. Currently, the only other top player wearing On clothing is women’s world No. 1 Iga Świątek.

The sponsorship deal prompted a wave of photoshoots and interviews for Shelton, on top of his regular press commitments at tournaments. A life in the public spotlight, he explains, has been a new experience for him over the past 12 months.

“That’s something that I’m trying to https://ikutisaja.com adjust to – feeling like all the eyes are on me,” says Shelton. “It’s another piece of being a professional athlete that I didn’t think of that much before I turned pro.”

In short, the past 12 months have been a steep learning curve for one of the most exciting talents in men’s tennis. But Shelton has so far shown himself to be a fast learner – and grand slam success might not be far behind.

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