Black History Month:
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 21, 2019
In honor of Black History Month, USTA.com is spotlighting several African-American collegiate coaches who have had an impact on the game of college tennis. In our latest feature, we talk with Florida men's head tennis coach Bryan Shelton.
Bryan Shelton is in the midst of his 20th season as a collegiate head coach, including 13 years with the women's program at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and seven in his current post with the Florida men. A 2007 NCAA champion with the Yellow Jackets, Shelton was also a four-time ACC tournament and regular-season champion at the Atlanta school, guiding the team to the NCAA tournament in each of his 13 seasons. Prior to Shelton's arrival, the program had never reached the tournament.
After leaving Georgia Tech with a 227-108 record, Shelton continued that success at Florida, where he held a 105-57 record entering the 2018-19 campaign. ADVERTISEMENT He has extended his streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 19, with a pair of Elite Eight runs in 2016 and 2018 the highlights of his Florida tenure to date.
As a player, Shelton won two ATP singles titles and a pair of ATP doubles crowns in nine years as a professional. A former Top-60 player in both singles and doubles, he retired after the 1997 US Open. His best Grand Slam singles run came at Wimbledon in 1994, when he reached the fourth round. Shelton was also a mixed doubles finalist at the 1992 French Open alongside American Lori McNeil, a former WTA Top-10 singles player. Prior to his professional career, he enjoyed a successful four-year career at Georgia Tech, where he was a 1988 All-American and a four-time All-ACC selection (1985-88).
After his retirement, he served as a USTA national coach for 18 months before signing on to coach his alma mater in July 1999.
In this Q&A with USTA.com, Shelton discusses his coaching career, his view on young players skipping college for the pros, the changes he's seen in college tennis over the years and much more.
USTA.com: What are some of the biggest highlights that come to mind when you think back on your career in college coaching?
Bryan Shelton: Winning several ACC Championships at Georgia Tech as well as the two ITA National Indoor Team titles were incredible achievements for our program, but winning the NCAA title in Athens, Ga., in 2007 was the best tennis moment I’ve experienced. There is nothing quite like being a part of a team that really comes together and operates as one. That season in 2006-07 was quite special. So many people helped make that happen, including players and coaches that came before that team. That’s what really stands out—that everyone played a significant part, including our athletic trainer, who was phenomenal.
USTA.com: What is your favorite part of coaching at the college level? The most challenging part?
Bryan Shelton: I enjoy personal and player development as well as match days. Nothing like watching your players deal with adversity and face challenges. Everything is revealed under pressure, and that’s when you know if the habits have been formed.
One of the toughest things is not to have every player in the lineup. In order to grow, you need to play and compete more than just practice. It’s hard to tell a player who is busting their butt that they have to sit on it during the match. But valuable lessons can be learned through that process, as well.
USTA.com: What changes have you seen in college tennis since you started coaching at Georgia Tech in 1999?
Bryan Shelton: Changes to the scoring format, for sure. More time spent around recruiting. At the top of Division I, there are more deals being made to top prospects than ever before.
USTA.com: How did your experience as a player at Georgia Tech shape your coaching philosophy?
Bryan Shelton: I learned to have more empathy. I had a couple of really tough years where I couldn’t beat my way out of a paper bag. Struggling with confidence issues is one of the toughest things we have to deal with. Being able to share my own stories and experiences, I believe, has opened up the conversation on how to deal with tough situations. Sharing my failings always seems to help, but also sharing what helped me get out of the hole I was in gives hope.
USTA.com: How does your experience as a professional help you as a college coach? What advantage does it give you over coaches who did not play or succeed at that level?
Bryan Shelton: Initially it gives you some credibility because so many players come into college expecting one day to be on the tour, as well. However, I know how difficult it is to balance everything and how important having a belief system is to your overall performance and, more importantly, your personal fulfillment. I learned more about the process by striving to be at the top of the game, and I had the opportunity to learn from the best players in the world, who shared so much with me. That list includes Arthur Ashe, who is arguably one of the greatest ambassadors and players our sport has ever seen.
USTA.com: Can you take me through your typical recruiting process? How much of your time is spent recruiting?
Bryan Shelton: Recruiting character is very important, and to do so requires getting to know the prospect and his family and their family dynamic. It has also been helpful to get personal insight from the prospect’s personal coach. We also look at how that prospect interacts with his peers. Talent certainly isn’t our top priority, so results alone aren’t the determining factor for us. We have an inside-out approach to recruiting. We start inside the state of Florida and then go to the rest of the United States before we look elsewhere.
Personally, I spend a small amount of my time recruiting and put most of my energy into development of my current team. My assistant spends more time both on the road and in the office on recruiting, and once we identify the players we are most interested in, then I become more involved in the process. I believe your players should do the recruiting for you. If I do my job well helping our guys to develop as people and players and they get a first-class education, they will sell the program for us.
USTA.com: What are your thoughts on the college/pro decision for top junior players, and how do you handle that topic with recruits?
Bryan Shelton: Playing professional tennis is getting harder, not easier. Tennis players have become stronger, fitter and stay in the game longer, which has created less opportunities for players to break in at a young age. Hence, going to college, getting an education and developing your body, mind and game is the best option, in my opinion. Why settle for good when you can have the best? There are so many players that regret making the decision to turn down an education for chasing the dream at 18 years old. They could have gotten both, and they end up without either. Parents tend to drive these decisions, and it’s sad in many ways.
USTA.com: Do you think the success of former college players, like John Isner and most recently Danielle Collins, who both played all four years in college and graduated, will make a difference to top junior players when they’re deciding whether to play college tennis or to turn pro right away?
Bryan Shelton: Maybe. I certainly hope so. Everyone has to make their own decision on this question, but the statistics will show that the odds are not in their favor at the moment. It seems like there will always be those who are willing to take the risk. It’s just important that we educate parents on the odds and what they leave behind when they make their choice.
USTA.com: I’m sure college coaches don’t have a lot of free time, but when you do, how do you like to spend it?
Bryan Shelton: I have two children that are playing tennis. I coach both of them, so I stay quite busy working with them and the team. I really enjoy playing golf, and we live on a golf course in Gainesville, Fla. It’s a fantastic way to unwind with friends.
USTA.com: Who have been the biggest influences in your tennis career?
Bryan Shelton: My parents, number one, and my lifelong coach Bill Tym. My coach in college, Jean Desdunes, also invested in me while I was in college. The other person is Kenny Thorne. I’m not sure I could have gotten where I am without him constantly pushing me to be my best. There have been many others who have helped me tremendously. You certainly can’t do it alone, so I have been blessed far more than I deserve.