Ben Shelton of the University of Florida makes his Australian Open debut

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JANUARY 10: Ben Shelton of USA reacts in his match against Sebastian Baez of Argentina during day two of the ASB Classic Men’s 2023 at ASB Tennis Arena on January 10, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand . (Photo by Fiona Goodall/

To get an idea of ​​how new the whole international professional tennis thing is for Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida who is about to make his Australian Open debut, consider this: he says you are using a passport. for the first time.

There are more that are not familiar to you. The Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide air travel itinerary late last month that took Shelton on his initial trip outside the United States while playing taper events ahead of the first Grand Slam tournament in 2023. Go through customs. Try different food. Travel in cars on the left side of the road.

And that’s not to mention the on-court learning curve, which Shelton will continue to navigate when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park on Tuesday against Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old from China who has never been in the main before. draw there.

“It’s a whole different ballgame,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “All these are a lot of experiences I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be here.”

It’s been said time and time again: No American has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. Shelton is part of a group of players hoping to end that drought at some point, and while it may still take some time, standout performances in 2022 from Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima helped show their compatriots what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, reached the semifinals of the US Open, the first US man to go that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, moved up to the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, a 21-year-old Californian, won the Next Generation ATP Finals.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s great to see these guys do amazing things. It’s something to admire me for, for sure,” Shelton said, prone to a wide smile as he spoke. . “American tennis is definitely on the rise.”

A total of 13 Americans are in the ATP top 100, with Shelton posting a career best 92 after turning pro last year.

“He’s a spirited competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and a friend of Shelton’s who plays in Australia on Monday. “When things aren’t going well, he’s still so confident and focused on deciding if things are going well. It’s very rare. You’re going to hear some screaming. You’re going to hear ‘Come on!’ You’re going to see fisticuffs. It doesn’t matter what the score is.”

Shelton’s father, Bryan, a former professional who taught Ben and the coaches the game in Florida, described it as having “a football mentality” that stems from his time dabbling in the sport, along with basketball and soccer, when i was young. It wasn’t until Ben was 11 that he focused on tennis, because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels like his sister, Emma, ​​who now competes for Florida.

There are a tournament-high 14 players from the USA in the men’s pool at the Australian Open, and the 17 in the women’s pool also lead all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Sofia Kenin have all won major women’s singles trophies for the United States over the past two decades.)

“American men in their 20s, there are a lot of guys who are having success and constantly moving up the rankings. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; I want Taylor to do his best, of course. But hopefully we’ll have an American man as Grand Slam champion soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his second season and is taking online classes toward a business degree, is okay with taking it one step at a time.

He’s more interested in process-related goals than anything related to rankings or results, even if he shot 471 during 2022, which included a win over French Open and US Open runner-up Casper. Ruud and three consecutive titles at the lower level. Challenger Tour.

“He’s been very successful, but there’s a lot to improve,” Bryan Shelton said of his son. “He recognizes it.”

There weren’t as many surprises on the court for Ben as off it during his early experience of life on tour.

“The way players take care of all things: their bodies, how they eat, the way they warm up, the work they do in the gym every day,” Shelton said, “I would say that was the interesting part for me. See how much it takes to get to the level these guys are at.”

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