Ben Shelton breaks new ground in sophomore season

Ben Shelton has had a topsy turvy breakthrough 2023, but a run to the last four of the US Open has cemented him as one to watch in the years to come

Ben Shelton has bounced back from disappointing Roland Garros and Wimbledon campaigns by reaching the last four of the US Open (Reuters via Beat Media Group subscription)
Ben Shelton has bounced back from disappointing Roland Garros and Wimbledon campaigns by reaching the last four of the US Open (Reuters via Beat Media Group subscription)

By Oli Dickson Jefford, Sportsbeat

What Ben Shelton lacks in experience, he certainly makes up for in raw talent.

A string of booming forehands, lethal backhands - and a few 150mph serves - have seen him smash his way into the last four of his home Slam at the US Open, winning an array of new fans along the way.

In Wednesday’s quarter-final he was up against Frances Tiafoe, the most popular of the American male players, but by the time Shelton sealed an enthralling 6-2 3-6 7-6 6-3 victory, he had won over the Arthur Ashe crowd and then some.

Few have been on the journey that the 20-year-old has in the past 12 months, in more ways than one.

Shelton - who is trained by dad Bryan, himself a former pro - made his major debut at Flushing Meadows last season, the Georgia native losing in five sets to Portuguese qualifier Nuno Borges in the first round.

Disappointment fuelled an astonishing end to 2022 that saw him win three Challenger Tour titles in three weeks, the youngest man to ever do that, moving to a new career high of 97th in the ATP Rankings.

He became not only the youngest American man in the top 100 but also in the whole of the top 250, impressively sealing a main draw spot at the Australian Open in January.

But that was more than just a first Grand Slam outside of home soil, it was also a first trip abroad; the 20-year-old had never travelled out of the USA before embarking on his first full year as a tennis pro.

Competing on the international stage for the first time, Shelton became perhaps the story of the tournament, reaching the quarter-final before eventually losing to compatriot Tommy Paul.

His meteoric rise wowed most and he became one of the rising stars to watch throughout the year, but having started his sophomore season so well, it was always going to be tough to follow that.

Heading into Flushing Meadows, the world No.47 had amassed a rather drab 8-20 record in his ensuing tournaments, losing in the opening round of Roland Garros - where he was seeded at a Slam for the first time - before a second round loss at Wimbledon.

Perhaps it was lower expectations heading into New York that enabled him to swing so freely this week, ultimately progressing further than any other American man in the draw.

From a home perspective, focus on the men’s draw was on ninth seed Taylor Fritz, Paul and Tiafoe, and the retirement of long-term standard bearer John Isner.

But Isner’s career ended in the second round and Shelton got revenge for his Australian Open loss to Paul in round four in four sets - before vanquishing 2022 semi-finalist Tiafoe last night.

And with Fritz falling in tame fashion to Novak Djokovic on Wednesday, Shelton - alongside women’s star Coco Gauff, also in the last four - now sits front and centre of home hopes.

Shelton has now reached the last four of a Slam before Fritz, a man half a decade older than him - perhaps another indicator of the early 2000s generation already usurping ‘Next Gen.’

That is not to say Shelton does not have a lot to learn, though; his record in between the two hard court Slams is proof that he is still a work in progress, though his current 9-1 record across Melbourne and New York is nothing to be sniffed at.

This is a player clearly moulded and built for the big time and he knows it, but it will be fascinating to see how he handles Friday’s semi-final.

Facing Djokovic in what is the Serbian’s record-breaking 47th Grand Slam semi-final, may simplify things for him; he will head in with less pressure, no-one thinking he can win, and hit freely.

But, aside from a third-round wobble against Laslo Djere, Djokovic has been in sublime form and this may prove a chastening experience for the American, the racket could be taken out of his hand completely.

Whatever happens on Friday this has been a groundbreaking tournament for Shelton, the youngest US male to reach a semi-final in New York since 1992.

On Friday, though, he could well be handed a reminder of how tough it will be to ensure this is not the last time he reaches this position.