Issue #6 | What’s Not to Like About Ben Shelton?

Issue #6 | What’s Not to Like About Ben Shelton?

Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

From the grimey, sketchy, dark and pungent side alleys of Tennis Twitter to the Lulu Lemon wearing, reigning 3.0 champions of the local country club scene, I’m hearing a disturbing, echoing sentiment in the tennis sphere. There are people (some even American), who don’t like Ben Shelton. Ben Shelton, for real? For at least the last six months, I’ve seen and heard outright criticisms from “he’s too arrogant” to his enthusiasm on the court is “brash,” and he’s “disrespectful” to the veterans of the game (he’s been on tour a year and a half, everyone is a veteran of the game by comparison). I’ve also heard people say he’s “cocky,” or “he needs to be more humble” and that he’s “overconfident for a guy who hasn’t really won anything.” I had to ask myself, what in the actual Audi driving, casserole eating, honey deuce drinking fuck is going on? People don’t like Ben Shelton? How Sway?

Shelton’s ascension in the professional ranks of men’s tennis since leaving the University of Florida in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. After receiving his very first passport stamp, he made his Grand Slam debut a memorable one by making the quarterfinals at the 2023 Australian Open. Shelton has been steadily climbing the ATP rankings ever since. After being on tour a year and a half, he’s won two ATP 250 titles (Tokyo 2023, Houston 2024). And after his defeat of countryman Frances Tiafoe in Houston last week, where he took home his second tour level title and his first on clay, Shelton will be the number one ranked American when the rankings come out this week. I’m not sure what’s not to like about Ben Shelton, but people should buckle up because he’s just getting started.

I suspect much of the funk towards Shelton started last year at the U.S. Open where he caught fire and the debut of his “dialed in” celebration became too much for anyone suspicious of Shelton’s tan and or how much of a threat he posed to Novak Djokovic Stans everywhere. Shelton’s celebration, inspired by friend and three-time world 110m hurdles champion Grant Holloway, became misinterpreted as disrespectful from people who saw what they wanted to see. In fact, they interpreted the celebration with the blatant disrespect Novak Djokovic intended when he used the celebration against Shelton after defeating him in the semifinals, which ironically, no one (aside from me apparently) took much issue with. Lost was the fact that a twenty year old American was in the semifinals of a Grand Slam in his first year on tour, only losing to the greatest champion the men’s game has ever seen. My hands have suddenly gotten ashy and my fingers are cramping in protest of having to type that last sentence.

Basketball fans pack stadiums in cities across the country every night to watch Steph Curry unconsciously drain three pointers at will, we all know Steph is “must see TV,” and tennis fans are filling stadiums to watch Shelton blast superhuman serves at his opponents every time he steps on the court. I’ve seen Shelton play a couple of times in person, both times in early rounds to mostly packed stadiums, full of energy and buzz around this young American superstar. His ability to serve lightning bolts pushing 150 miles per hour is prime time. In addition to his big serve, the rest of Shelton’s all around game is nice, like really nice. Yes, he’s still a bit raw, and he’s always going to go for the biggest shot his brain and athletic ability can process in real time. That aside, Shelton has a ton of headroom for growth and refinement of his complete game. He may not have the experience yet, but you can’t deny that he has all the tools. And maybe among the small circle of people I talk tennis with, his talent isn’t being properly acknowledged. People seem to be caught up on his on-court behavior which I just don’t see as problematic in any form.

If you examine Shelton’s pathway to professional tennis, you can’t overlook the imprint and importance of his collegiate roots at the University of Florida (where he helped the Gators win a National Championship), and the role it plays in his on court demeanor. If you’ve ever seen Division 1 college tennis up close, you know the atmosphere is quite raucous, more often resembling a fraternity rush party where tennis matches happen to break out. Perhaps it’s Shelton’s “college bro” vibes, which are still ingrained into the fiber of who he is on the court, that are being twisted out of context, and used against him in a negative way. 

Danielle Collins, a two-time D1 national champion in her own right, is cut from the same collegiate cloth as Shelton. Collins, also known for being vocal on court, has single handedly breathed more life into the words “come on” than anyone on the WTA tour. Her vocal expressions have been questioned and criticized at times, and also have become affectionately accepted and celebrated by tennis fans everywhere, earning her the nicknames “Dan-Yell” and “Danimal” respectively. And considering where the game is today, it’s not unusual to see any player, man or woman, roar with excitement when good things are happening on court (as well they should), it’s pretty commonplace behavior within the confines of an exciting match. Yet, I haven’t seen any overly egregious behavior from Shelton on the tennis court, certainly nothing that should be taken as disrespectful or intimidating. Yet, the sentiment around Shelton hasn’t been as forgiving as it’s been for Collins (or any other player for that matter). In fact, I know people who dislike Shelton, and cheer for Collins at every turn. To her credit, there’s been a LOT to cheer about lately as she embarks on her farewell tour from the game. I would argue that to take issue with Shelton’s self expression, one would have to be as critical of self expression across the board. Don’t act brand new, it’s not just Ben Shelton. Either you have to be annoyed at pretty much every tennis player or better yet, not annoyed at all.

Another key consideration when looking at Shelton, is his coach and father, Bryan Shelton. The elder Shelton was a former professional in his own right, has a brilliant tennis mind, and travels with his son as his full-time coach. I’ve never sat at the Shelton dinner table, but they (Bryan, wife/mother Lisa, and sister Emma) appear to be a close knit, happy, loving family. I can only describe Bryan Shelton as the Barack Obama of tennis coaches, no cap. He’s confident, poised, focused. He’s direct and specific with his tone and instruction during matches and does everything to ensure his son stays the course in the heat of battle. And if you squint hard enough, you can almost morph Bryan Shelton into my president. Most of the time I see Ben being expressive, it’s usually in the direction of his box. He seems to be a solid young man, and it starts with the family from which he comes. Ben Shelton understands humility, because his parents won’t tolerate anything less. But, depending on who you ask, you’d think Ben Shelton was the O.D.B. of men’s tennis. Tupac Shakur packin’ a Yonex EZONE. Rick James dirtying tennis’ pristine white sofa with a pair of muddy clay court ON sneakers. If Ben Shelton was the boogeyman he’s being made out to be, I’d still be making excuses to write about that time Novak Djokovic got his chin checked at the net after the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year.

Hear me out. Ben Shelton is six feet four inches tall and twenty-one years old. He’s handsome and has never met a gym he didn’t get along with. After eighteen months on tour, he has two ATP titles on his resume and has efficiently earned a smooth three and a half million dollars in prize money. As these words fire off my keyboard at a frenetic pace, he’s ranked number thirteen in the world and is the number one American in men’s tennis. Truth is, Ben Shelton could and should be as arrogant and cocky as several players on tour who also haven’t “really won anything.” And he isn’t. I mean, if I’m keeping it a buck, I’ve been to the gym for two months straight and right now, you can’t tell me shit. If I was 21, 6’4 and could clock a 142 MPH serve, I’d be a menace. The line between humility and arrogance is a fine one, and Shelton hasn’t crossed it despite having every right to be feeling himself. Me, not so much.

Today, Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated in baseball. Robinson's significance extends far beyond baseball. His courage catalyzed profound societal change and symbolized the pursuit of equality. His presence paved the way for future generations of athletes, inspiring a broader movement towards racial equality. And while Jackie Robinson Day serves as a poignant reminder of the progress that has been made in the ongoing fight for civil rights, we’re also reminded of the work that remains to be done in achieving true equality for all. Yet, across sports culture, black athletes are constantly told to “shut up and dribble” or “keep politics out of sports” or “just play the game the way it was meant to be played,” and that's aside from the hoards of fans yelling obscenities from the stands to the pitch. I can’t help but think people are annoyed by Ben Shelton for reasons they may or may not be willing to admit. To this point, I’m hard pressed to find any red flag character flaws in this young man. All you have to do is look at his acknowledgement to Frances Tiafoe after winning in Houston to know who Ben Shelton really is. 

You've been such an inspiration to kids, people of color in our sport. Just an amazing representation, you’ve always been that guy to put on for us and always be selfless, thinking about others, kids younger than you. Thanks for all you do for our sport & people who look like you and me." 

Ben Shelton’s father watched him speak from the coaches box in Houston that day. His mother and sister were watching at home. The patrons of the River Oaks Country Club were watching. And if you watch closely enough, you’ll know Ben Shelton knows exactly who he is. He’s been taught to understand the difference between confidence and arrogance. And if you step foot on a tennis court without confidence, you've already lost. He has a great role model to help him navigate the waters of the professional tour. He knows how and where he can push boundaries, he knows where the lines are drawn. And he knows he has the tennis world’s attention, even if they’re not really sure why. 

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