Ben Shelton's Big Break

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Just 15 months ago, Ben Shelton was a pretty good college tennis player with a lot of promise; a year ago, after turning pro, he was ranked 802 in the world. Now 20 years old, here he was, in the middle of a historic New York heatwave, playing a night session against the second-highest-ranked player in American men’s tennis inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the most-watched arena of the sport’s biggest event in front of its loudest, rudest crowd—which was rooting against him.

The US Open cheers passionately for American players—fervent nationalism paired with a longing to discover which contender on the men’s side will emerge as its first champion in over two decades. (ESPN commentators fixate on Andy Roddick, the last American man to win the tournament, as if he’s a ghost.) Shelton had gotten pretty far in this tournament putting on a show for the crowd. It didn’t hurt that in Shelton’s previous match, he’d uncorked a serve clocking at an ungodly 149 miles per hour. No one at this year’s US Open would hit a ball that fast—except Shelton, who did it again that same game.

But tonight he was playing against Frances Tiafoe, one of the most exciting players to come out of the United States in a generation and, as of late, the undisputed winner of American hearts and minds. Tiafoe’s game is easy to cheer for, rich with creativity and occasional flourish.

Shelton’s side of the court would follow a slightly more streamlined approach: serve hard, be relentless, stay nimble.

Pants by On. Socks by Gucci.
Pants by On. Socks by Gucci.

Naturally, Shelton was a little anxious going into it. “When I woke up that morning, I felt the nervousness in my stomach, just knowing that it would be the biggest match I’ve ever played,” he recalls. This time, he didn’t care about entertaining people. He’d come to the US Open to do a job. But in his match against Tiafoe, Shelton did both.

In four humid, sweaty sets, Shelton’s athleticism and grit overpowered Tiafoe in one of the tournament’s biggest surprises. Shelton came with aces, overhead smashes, and screams to the crowd.

It was a performance that would solidify Ben Shelton as the astonishing breakout of this year’s Open, the only unseeded player in either singles bracket to get within spitting distance of the trophy. The other three men’s semifinalists? Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic (who would beat Shelton and go on to win the whole tournament), and Daniil Medvedev—the top three seeds, respectively. Over those two weeks, Shelton would fashion himself into one of tennis’s most dangerous players, and he did it all with distinctly American swagger.

Case in point: After Shelton won his match against Tiafoe, he looked up at the audience and flashed a tough-guy mug. Then, he pretended his hand was a telephone—and hung it up. This unusual, memorable gesture had become Ben Shelton’s signature celebration. To some, it appeared confident; to others, arrogant. For Shelton, it was simply a shout-out to his boys back in Florida.

Later, at a press conference, he explained the phone thing: “I’m saying I’m dialed in.”

Tennis is a game of observation, and players in particular are closely watched. On the court, their every movement is tracked with technology that would make the CIA blush. Off the court, especially at Grand Slams, Shelton is aware the media is listening.

When we meet at John McEnroe Tennis Academy, a couple days after his Open has ended, Shelton is in high spirits. But when we sit down to chat, he’s in full slouch mode, draped in light gray On sweats, his athletic six-foot-four frame sinking into an office chair, his tousled mop drying from a fresh shower. When I turn on the recorder, he suddenly sits straight up.

“At the US Open, the camera and the mic are always there. You go into the gym, they’re following you. I’m talking with Coco [Gauff] after we both won our match, there’s a mic above our head.” He continued: “You don’t really have a safe space where people aren’t watching. When you can get back to your hotel room, you can kind of relax.”

He is young, yet he is aware how closely his actions are surveilled. Shelton thanks his parents—Lisa and Bryan, who is a former tennis pro and also his coach—for teaching him to be careful from a young age, to always treat people well, to think about how you act even when no one is looking. “Every once in a while, when you say something you wish you didn’t. And you just look at the camera that’s caught you, it’s in your head a little bit.” That pressure, he admits, is hard.

If Shelton’s on-court persona is ’80s high school bad boy, his off-court personality is pure zoomer heartthrob. The knowing grin he flashes during matches—a touch of smug intimidation—is warm and earnest in person. He's a sensitive jock…at least when he’s not trying to crush you with a kick serve.

Sneakers by On.
Sneakers by On.

But after his win over Tiafoe, the criticism started raining down. Some had deemed the phone celebration cocky. Others took issue with his play: simpler than Tiafoe’s theatrics and versatility, and therefore, less worthy. These rebukes did not elude Shelton.

“I’m not gonna lie, I check social media from time to time,” Shelton admits. He craves the negativity, hearing from the haters. “I can use that for fuel, and it really helps me play much better with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder.”

As the Williams sisters were reimagining how the game could be played, the long-standing criticism of the last generation of American men’s players was that the US was spitting out men who were freakishly tall and could smash serves—derogatorily called “servebots.” They also couldn’t return balls very well, looked clumsy moving around the court, and were making only minor dents in major tournaments. Shelton is sensitive about being lumped in with the servebots, and he’s been slowly proving doubters wrong by raising his ground game. His serves, even, are also varied in speed and spin.

“Every little thing that you do, even if it’s not out of control—you don’t need to be swearing or breaking racquets—is looked down upon in tennis,” Shelton says. “If I win a big point and I’m screaming… people will say something. ‘He celebrates too hard. He is out of control. Be humble.’”

Still, he doesn’t understand how people can take issue with his victory celebration. Or perhaps it was how he came across during the match: self-assured and daunting. In any other sport, it would be uncontroversial.

“Every little thing that you do, even if it’s not out of control—you don’t need to be swearing or breaking racquets—is looked down upon in tennis,” Shelton says. “If I win a big point and I’m screaming… people will say something. ‘He celebrates too hard. He is out of control. Be humble.’”

During the Open, 26-year-old Chris Eubanks, dual-threat player/commentator, saw a lot of characterizations of Shelton that he considered unfair. They’re good pals and even play doubles together. To him, Shelton is the new kid on tour, and the goofiest one. (“He’s one of the best, good-hearted human beings I think I’ve ever met,” Eubanks says.) Of course, sometimes Eubanks has to tease Shelton about being 20, to put him in his place. But Eubanks mounted a passionate defense of his friend to me: “This is literally one of the nicest kids, and people were saying he’s arrogant.” But to Eubanks, that’s just how Shelton competes. It has nothing to do with putting on a show because he’s on Ashe for the first time. Simply put: “He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen.”

After all, shouting during a match is a release. Considering the sudden emphasis on athletes’ mental health in professional sports, shouldn’t leagues be encouraging players to express themselves? To emote? To relieve the steam valve? Naomi Osaka, the brightest young star of tennis, dropped out of the French Open over a year ago citing burnout. (She was on-site at this year’s Open to do a panel about mental health with Michael Phelps.) So why is reacting to the highs of a win frowned upon? After a loss, when athletes are at their lowest, why are they forced to do a press conference? Can Ben Shelton, one of the brightest young stars of tennis, just be himself on court?

Shirt by Loro Piana. Necklace (throughout), his own.
Shirt by Loro Piana. Necklace (throughout), his own.

Tennis is a game of endurance, and that pursuit, for many, is lifelong, a path decided at a very young age. For a long time, despite his dad being a former tennis pro, Ben said that he would play football (quarterback, dual option, of course). This was okay with Bryan Shelton—the sport was never the point. The only thing that was important was how his son would grow up, what kind of person he grew up to be.

So when Ben dedicated himself to tennis, Bryan says, “I was shocked.”

Ben committed late—at age 11, practically ancient—and spent his years through juniors playing catch-up while going to school in Gainesville. His triumphs came in college, at the University of Florida, where his dad was now coaching. That was its own challenge. In order to not seem like Coach Dad was playing favorites, Ben was the recipient of extra criticism. “He came down harder on me than he did other guys,” Shelton says. “But I totally understood after a while that that’s the way things had to be.”

They argued a lot. They worked through it. What also helped: winning the national championship as a team in Ben's first year. The following year in 2022, he won the singles championship. He went pro after that.

Ben Shelton is among a growing number of players proving college is an increasingly viable pathway into the tour—after decades of players feeling like they had to turn pro straight out of tennis academies. (Plus, collegiate matches tend to be much rowdier, closer to other American sports.) According to Shelton, being on a team didn’t help him get better at tennis, necessarily, but he believes it helped him with all the other stuff: “The way I handle things out here on tour, being around different people.” Photo shoots, sponsorships, the business decisions. He thinks a lot about how he carries himself, and more importantly, how he treats others.

“It’s easy for tennis players to get self-centered because everything out here on tour is catered around us,” he says. “We’re put on this pedestal, and it’s easy to just think everything is about yourself, and the world revolves around you, but it doesn’t.” For Shelton, tennis is a team sport, even when it’s not.

After a surprising run at this year’s Australian Open in January, making it to the quarters of his Melbourne Park debut, Shelton struggled to find his rhythm throughout the rest of the year. It wasn’t the pressure or expectations that came with his performance in Australia. It was the grind of tennis. Tournament after tournament, being away from home, in foreign countries and on foreign surfaces. (He’d never played on red clay or grass before this spring, and he had relatively quick exits at this summer’s Roland Garros and Wimbledon).

This dip did not surprise his father. In fact, Bryan Shelton, now Ben’s full-time coach on the tour, says the most surprising thing was coming out of the gate in Australia so strong. But losing—and losing a lot—that’s the normal part. “It’s how you take those experiences and learn from them. I think that he's done that so well,” says Bryan. “Each loss only motivated him to work harder and to reflect and examine the parts of his game that he has to continue to improve.”

Bryan didn’t join his son until grass season, meaning he wasn’t around for a big stretch of Ben’s year. But at the US Open, he was hearing compliments from other tournament directors about how his son had handled himself on tour. “They said that Ben takes the time to give to every single one of their staff members and people that work the event, the fans and the kids…. As a father, you appreciate that even more than the wins or success or anything else on the court. That's what matters most.”

He’s learning how to better use his platform from peers like Coco Gauff, who is famously outspoken about racial justice. Though she’s younger than him, she’s been on tour for four years, and now has a US Open championship under her belt. Coco seems like the vet, and Ben the newbie. “So she messes with me sometimes,” he says. “She’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, rookie? How’s the year going so far?’”

On tour, Shelton’s made a ton of friends, a who’s-who of rising Americans. Tiafoe (ranked 11), Tommy Paul (13), “Mack” McDonald (39), “Seb” Korda (33), and, of course, Chris Eubanks (32), “one of my best friends for a long time.” He’s been so impressed by the people who he looks up to. “Like big brothers and big sisters, people who just helped me along the way.”

I ask Shelton if Gauff is among the big sisters.

“No! Not a big sister, not at all,” he says, laughing. “Coco is a little sister to me!”

Then he nods. “She’s definitely one of the ones I’m talking about.”

Tennis is a game of etiquette for players—but also for fans. You’re not supposed to clap for faults, or hoot after an error. But all the decorum goes out the window in Queens. The Open audience is raucous, and the chair umpire can only do their best to shush the crowd with a “thank you,” or more desperately, a “please.” If Wimbledon’s motto is “tennis in an English garden,” the U.S. Open is “a block party off the 7 train.”

That afternoon, thunder boomed in the distance as Shelton and Novak Djokovic played in this year’s semifinal. The roof of Arthur Ashe was closed, amplifying the volume of the stadium. But after two sets against the legendary Serb, things were not looking great for Shelton. It was always going to be a tough matchup for him, and not just because Djokovic is one of the greatest players of all time and regularly feasts on young players. He is also the best returner in the game. It wouldn’t matter how fast or well Shelton placed his serves—Djokovic could always get his racquet on them. It was looking like a straightforward victory for the player that would eventually cruise to win this year’s U.S. Open, his 24th, the most Slams won by any player, ever.

But in the third set, Shelton came alive, and started to put on a show. “Okay, I may not win this match,” Shelton remembers thinking. “But I want this guy to know—I want the crowd to know—that I’m here to play. And that I’m going to be back.”

Shelton proceeded to play some of his best tennis of the tournament. His shots were cleaner, gutsier; he attacked long rallies. The push worked. He broke Djokovic’s service game. Shelton stayed aggressive. He broke Djokovic again, forcing a tiebreak. The crowd roared, loving every moment of it.

The person not loving it: Novak Djokovic. He became visibly irritated. The crowd was cheering during his service motion—a sign he took as disrespect. Who was this punk? Consider: When Djokovic won his first Slam, the Australian Open in 2008, this kid in front of him was only five years old.

During his match against Ben Shelton, he played angry. Djokovic’s mean side emerged. He appeared furious to be pushed into a third-set tiebreak, pissed that the audience was celebrating a newbie more than him. Even though Djokovic eventually triumphed, he couldn’t help himself. He closed his victory over Shelton by imitating his phone celebration. It looked a little awkward—like an adult attempting a Fortnite dance. A chilly handshake followed.

The reaction to Djokovic’s celebration was mixed. Tennis writer Christopher Clarey questioned if Djokovic’s behavior was “really necessary.” Shelton, to his credit, thought very little of it. He didn’t even see it at the time, only afterward on TV. Besides, he hates when anyone polices a player’s behavior. To Shelton, if a guy wins, he gets to celebrate however he wants.

In a post-match presser, Djokovic explained himself. “I just love Ben’s celebration. I thought it was very original,” he said. “And I copied him. I stole his celebration.”

Bryan Shelton, however, was less amused, especially coming from a competitor like Djokovic. “He wants to be loved so much, Novak…” Bryan went on: “He wanted to mock Ben at the end. It wasn't something he was doing just to copy Ben. It was to mock him. And that's too bad, for that to come from such a great champion.”

Chris Eubanks had a different take. His gut reaction in the moment was to be protective of his friend. But the more he thought about it, the more he loved that Djokovic copied his friend’s phone celebration. Think about other sports: A defensive end tackles a quarterback and imitates his touchdown dance; someone dunks on Russell Westbrook and taunts him with his own rock-the-baby.

“This happens in every other sport,” Eubanks says. “We could use some more of this."

Ben Shelton hadn’t won the match, but he had succeeded at rattling maybe the best player to ever do it. With Shelton, the brash, rowdy energy of American sports is back in tennis.

Kevin Nguyen is a former GQ editor and the author of the novel New Waves.

Photographs by AF Webb
Styled by Brandon Tan
Grooming by Valissa Yoe using Oribe
Special thanks to SPORTIME/John McEnroe Tennis Academy

Originally Appeared on GQ