Ascending Star Ben Shelton
Aug 04, 2023
When the Roger Federer-backed running shoes and apparel company On ventured into tennis, the first women's player to be signed was top-ranked Iga Swiatek of Poland. The first male player: rising American star Ben Shelton.
Though Federer's career on the professional circuit has ended, he continues to hit aces. Swiatek has won three Grand Slam tournaments and 12 WTA Tour-level titles Shelton, a 20-year-old from Gainesville, Florida, won the NCAA singles championship in 2022 and in his first tournament outside the United States reached the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open.
"Iga and Ben represent the next generation of world-class talent," Federer said. "Both players demonstrate On's competitive spirit and embody current and future champions of the sport. We are pleased to welcome them to the On family."
Shelton, who is represented by Team8, the agency co-founded by Federer and Tony Godsick, made his head-to-toe On debut at the Miami Open in March.
"As someone in the early stage of my professional career and a challenger on the tour, I love that I've partnered with a company that has years of experience in sports performance and is looking to take over a new sport like tennis," Shelton said. "I'm really pumped to be the first male tennis player sponsored by On."
Sometimes when Shelton checks his phone messages, there's one from arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport.
"He (Federer) sent me some messages during my performance at the last Australian Open, congratulating me on my victories," Shelton said. "We also talked about my evolution. I couldn't be happier to join a brand like ON, in which he is also involved, I'm really excited about this new step in my career, I'm sure we will have a lot of fun."
Shelton is a 6-foot-4-inch lefty with raw athleticism and power plus finesse and consistency. He became the youngest player in ATP Challenger tour history last year to win three titles in three consecutive weeks. And by early May of this year he had reached a career-high ranking of 35 in the world.
"When you can hit 147 miles an hour and you're left-handed and hit it on a dime, you've got a chance against anybody with that type of serve," legendary coach Rick Macci said in an interview with Florida Tennis. "Brutal forehand, lot of action. The backhand a little of a bubble loop. Hopefully that can be simplified.
"Good imagination, creativity. Very good athlete, good genes. Could he be he next great American? That's to be determined. I think he could be one of the guys. He definitely can be a top 10 player some day. I love his upside."
Shelton was born in Atlanta when his father, Bryan, a former ATP Tour player, was the women's tennis coach at Georgia Tech. The family moved to Gainesville, Florida, when Bryan became the men's tennis coach at the University of Florida in 2011.
Ben joined his father's squad as a freshman and helped the Gators win the NCAA team championship in 2021. The following year Ben won the NCAA singles title and was named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association men's Player of the Year.
In the decisive third set of the singles final against August Holmgren of San Diego, with Shelton leading 4-2, 30-15, Holmgren charged the net and deftly placed a drop shot just across the net. Shelton not only raced and reached the ball for a return attempt but ripped a backhand winner across the court, defying what appeared to be an impossible angle and tight landing area.
Holmgren watched the shot, then just stood at the net, looking in Shelton's direction. He kept looking.
When Shelton reached the baseline he turned and saw Holmgren still standing at the net and glaring at him.
"Why you staring me down?" Shelton shouted across the court.
"It was just too good," Holmgren said. "Just too good."
Shelton went on to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. And a few weeks later he upset the world's fifth-ranked player, Casper Ruud, in the third round of the ATP Masters 1000 at age 19. That made him the youngest American to earn a top-five victory since Andy Roddick, 18, at Montreal in 2001 against No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten.
He ended the 2022 season on the ATP Challenger Tour with three indoor hard court titles in as many weeks at Charlottesville, Knoxville and Champaign. Then he opened 2023 by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals at age 20, becoming youngest American man in the Australian Open quarterfinals since Sammy Giammalva at 19 in 1982, and the youngest in a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Roddick, 20, at the 2002 US Open.
Shelton has said the serve-and-volley is an important part of his game and is an area he wants to develop better.
"I love to get to net, be able to use some of my hand skills, athletic skills and going up to get the ball (to put away overheads) is one of my favorite things to do," he said.
Dean Goldfine has been Shelton's coaching mentor on the road. He has coached many stars, including Andy Roddick, Aaron Krickstein, Todd Martin and Sebastian Korda.
On June 2 the University of Florida announced that Bryan had resigned as coach of the Gators, and two days later he revealed that he will become Ben's full-time coach.
"His potential is, in my opinion, limitless, because he hasn't really scratched the surface," Bryan told ATPTour.com. "I just feel like he's so many hours shy of someone else his age that's playing at that level. They've logged a lot more hours, they've experienced a lot more situations on a lot more surfaces, and they've played around the globe for years prior, and he's having to catch up on those experiences."
His son has anticipated this would happen and is delighted.
"The dream team is back together baby??" Ben wrote on Instagram. "Can't wait to have you out on tour with me, and see what we can accomplish together."
Written by Florida Tennis Founder/Editor: Jim Martz. Photos (used with permission): © On. Video: © On. This article also appears as our cover story in the July-August 2023 issue of Florida Tennis Magazine. Be sure to subscribe for expanded coverage, exclusive interviews, and in-depth tennis news.