After Winning A Trio of Challenger Titles, What’s Next For Shelton?

Ben Shelton (photo: ATP Challenger Tour video)

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Ben Shelton has proven himself time and again to be a big moment tennis player. A three-week, three-title winning streak on the ATP Challenger Tour has lifted the 20-year-old American from outside the Top 150 to inside the Top 100 in less than a month.

Following a breakthrough season that began as a University of Florida standout, when he won the 2022 NCAA national singles title last May to conclude a tremendous two-year collegiate career – which also included ITA National Player of the Year honors as a sophomore after winning a team title in 2021 as a freshman – Shelton has shown tremendous poise and confidence as a budding professional.

Since age 10, Shelton has been soaking up plenty of lessons learned along the way that began as a promising junior player growing up in Atlanta, Ga. He comes from a tennis family, which includes his father Bryan, a former World No. 55, who coached him at the University of Florida, and older sister Emma, who also played at Florida.

“I think my greatest achievement on court has been being able to transition fairly quickly from the college game to the pro game,” Shelton said, in an ATP Challenger Tour video interview. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job at adjusting and I’m excited to continue.”

In July, the younger Shelton returned to his hometown and won his first ATP tour main-draw match at the Truist Open (an ATP 250 outdoor hard court event), a straight-set win over India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan. Then, he reached the third round of the Masters 1000 Western & Southern Open as a 229th-ranked wild card after beating then-No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway, 6-3, 6-3, in the second round, becoming the youngest American in two decades to beat a Top-5 opponent. It caught the attention of the tennis world.

Soon, in six autumn ATP Challenger Tour tournaments after making his US Open debut in a five-set, four-hour loss to Nuno Borges of Portugal, in which he struck 22 aces, Shelton blazed a trail by reaching the finals in four of them, including winning his last three Challenger events at Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Champaign, Ill., to put a wrap on a very successful 2022 season, where he went 35-8. Shelton compiled a 38-11 win-loss record in all competitions, including a season-ending 15-match winning streak on the Challenger Tour.

“I went in with a mindset that I was going to out compete everybody,” Shelton told Behind the Baseline podcaster Mike Cation, quoted by the ATP Tour website. “I was going to bring more energy than everyone I played.”

With an improved serve and return game – not to mention the right attitude – Shelton fought off fellow American Christopher Eubanks in the title matches at both Charlottesville, 7-6 (4), 7-5, and Knoxville, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (4), in back-to-back weeks.

“There’s not a guy I would’ve rather played in the final,” Shelton said. “Nobody really understands what Chris has done for me. The support he’s given me is unmatched. He’s a selfless human being and a big brother to me.”

The left-handed-hitting rising star has become the youngest player in ATP history to win three consecutive ATP Challenger crowns – the 12th overall – and the first American since Sam Querrey in 2014. After lifting the trophy at the Paine Schwartz Partners Challenger in Champaign on Sunday afternoon, coming back from a set down to beat No. 6 seed Aleksandar Vukic of Australia, 0-6, 6-3, 6-2, it assured that Shelton would break into the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings after starting the week ranked No. 108. He began the year ranked 573rd.

“I’m proud of myself for the way I competed,” Shelton told Cation. “Physically, I feel pretty good. … I feel pretty lucky. I didn’t expect to play 15 matches – plus doubles – in three weeks.”

On Monday, Shelton woke up ranked 97th – an improvement of 11 places – and is currently the 13th ranked American man. He is also the third youngest player behind Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune, both 19, in the Top 100.

Shelton has already assured himself of a reciprocal wild card into next January’s Australian Open by finishing in first place in the Australian Open Wild Card Challenge standings. However, now that he’s reached the ATP Top 100, his ranking should be high enough to enable him a direct entry into the year’s first major – and the wild card would be assumed fittingly by none other than Eubanks.

Looking back on his recent title successes, Shelton told Cation, “It starts with the mentality of what you do in between the points.

“I’m not dwelling on every single point whether I win or lose,” he said. “If I make a bad error, I can laugh it off. … I’m just taking everything that I can get right now, enjoying everything that I have and not stressing too much.”

Indeed, with the tennis court as his classroom setting, tournament by tournament, the young and talented Shelton is attaining valuable learning experiences – lessons and big moments – to build upon for a bright future on the ATP Tour.