Ben Shelton's excellent adventure at 2023 Australian Open: 'It's a pinch-me moment'
Three weeks ago, Ben Shelton had never left the United States. Now, in just his second Grand Slam tournament, and his first trip abroad, he's through to the fourth round of the Australian Open.
The 20-year-old left-hander kept his dream run at Melbourne Park alive on Saturday with a 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-4 win over Aussie wild card Alexei Popyrin, who'd defeated Taylor Fritz in Round 2. The reigning NCAA singles champion, who turned professional last summer ahead of the US Open, is one of four American men who reached Round 4—the most at the Australian Open since 2004.
"It's a pinch-me moment," Shelton told reporters afterwards. "Unreal experience out there on the court today with that Aussie crowd. It was a lot of fun to be out there, and I'm happy to be moving on.
"There were definitely a few times today ... a few moments today where I was looking around, like, 'Wow, this stadium is pretty packed.' It was unbelievable, kind of hard to describe. I definitely wouldn't have thought that I would be here in this moment six months ago, four months ago."
In fact, this time last year, Shelton was competing for the University of Florida as a sophomore on the team coached by his father, former pro Bryan Shelton. He was the No. 3 player in the lineup. But a surge in the season's second half, after he won the NCAA singles title in May, that included a win over then-world No. 5 Casper Ruud in Cincinnati helped cement his decision to turn professional, and he hasn't looked back since. In all, Shelton reached six USTA Pro Circuit finals last year, and won the first three titles of his career at ATP Challenger level in the waning weeks of the season.
The effort put him inside the Top 100, and helped him earn direct entry to the main draw in Melbourne. (His efforts in October and November would've clinched him the USTA's reciprocal wild card for the Australian Open, assuring him of a debut either way.)
But when asked by reporters after his third-round win over Chile's Nicolas Jarry, a former Top 40 player, what's been behind his rise, Shelton couldn't pinpoint one standalone moment.
"I definitely felt gradual improvements throughout the college season," Shelton said. "I think that I struggled a little bit towards the beginning of the year, the first couple of matches ... I took a little while to kind of get my feet under me and really start hitting my stride, but I'm not sure if there was a moment where things clicked or it was just I knew that I was making gradual improvements in my game.
"I just started trusting myself more and more going into the summer. The more that I competed at a higher level, I had more trust in myself to keep moving forward."
Shelton is up to No. 65 is the ATP live rankings, and will climb near the Top 40 should he reach the quarterfinals. It'll be the best ranking in the family's history (Shelton's father reached a career-high ranking of No. 55 in 1992), but his vanquished foe Popyrin believes that the left-hander can reach even greater heights.
"If this is the way he plays day in, day out, the guy is Top 10 in six months," the Aussie said. "I don't think he could have played ... Maybe he can play better than the way he played today, but if he continues playing the way he played like this, then he's a force to be reckoned with, honestly."
Shelton's keeping perspective on his fledging career, considering he hadn't thought the pro tour possible until his late teens.
"I wasn't an amazing tennis player growing up. I focused on a lot of other sports, and I wasn't at the level that a lot of these guys were at 13, 14, 15, even all the way to 18," Shelton said. "There were players inside of the U.S. that could challenge me and beat me every week, and I wasn't winning every single USTA tournament that I was playing. My dad's thoughts were I'm improving here, I'm not the best in the nation, and so there's not really a reason to go to a different country where, yeah, I probably would lose as well and learn a lot of the same things."
Shelton is the fifth man to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open in his debut in the last 10 years. The fourth? His next opponent, J.J. Wolf, who beat fellow American Michael Mmoh in straight sets earlier on Saturday.
"I kind of became friends with him maybe a year ago," Shelton said. "I didn't know him that well before that. I mean, I had seen him play in college tennis, but he was older than me, so we never competed against each other.
"We're good friends, like to joke around a lot, have a lot of locker room banter. So he is a good guy. [I'm] definitely excited to be able to play him, and I think it's a match that the crowd will for sure enjoy."