Ben Shelton’s first trip outside his native US almost ended early at the Australian Open.
But facing match point against Zhang Zhizhen in the first round, the 20-year-old ripped a serve to prompt a wide return before prevailing several games later in a fifth-set tiebreak.
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DRAW: Australian Open 2023 men's singles
His powerful brand of tennis also overcame Alexei Popyrin in straight sets on Saturday, leaving one of the tournament’s home hopes suitably impressed.
“If this is the way he plays day in, day out, the guy is top 10 in six months,” said Popyrin.
“He hit the lines. He averages second serves at 190 [kph]. Not much you can do in terms of attacking a second serve. It makes it even harder that he's a lefty."
Whether Popyrin’s bold forecast materialises remains to be seen but the rise of the 193cm [6’4”] Shelton has already turned some heads.
This time last year, Shelton was still competing for the University of Florida — dad Bryan, a former pro himself, is the head coach — which explained his world ranking of 569.
Days after winning the NCAA singles crown as a sophomore, Shelton contested his first professional event of 2022 in May and reached the semifinals of a Challenger in Arkansas.
The upward trend never ceased.
A first ATP win came in his birthplace of Atlanta, and he beat Casper Ruud in Cincinnati in his first duel against a top-10 foe.
Ruud, whose father also played professionally, made the US Open final weeks later.
Shelton’s Grand Slam debut at Flushing Meadows as a wildcard didn’t last long but he wrapped up an eventful 2022 by becoming the youngest player to claim three Challenger titles in as many weeks.
The last of those pushed him inside the top 100, making Shelton the third youngest man in the year-end standings behind US Open champion Carlos Alcaraz and Paris Masters winner Holger Rune. He entered AO 2023 at a career-high 89.
Despite his breakout, Shelton said he “wasn’t an amazing player” growing up. So rather than globetrotting in his teens, he stayed home.
“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,” he said.
“There were players inside of the US that could challenge me and beat me every week, and I wasn't winning every single USTA tournament that I was playing.
“So my dad's thoughts were, I'm improving [in the US], I'm not the best in the nation, and so there's not really a reason to go to a different country where I probably would lose as well and learn a lot of the same things. So I think that that was one piece of it.
“Then the other piece is that I went to normal public school all the way through senior year [in high school], so I didn't have as much leeway with missing classes, being able to be gone for long periods of time.”
Shelton’s first passport stamp came as he made his way to Australia to compete at the Adelaide International in early January.
He wasn’t fazed by losing in qualifying or exiting in the second round in Auckland the week before AO 2023.
“My first trip out of the country, so I have never dealt with a time change more than three hours,” he said.
“I think it was the hardest part for me. Going from Adelaide the first week I didn't feel great, and I started feeling really good in the second week in Auckland, and now I think I'm starting to hit my stride.”
Through three rounds, Shelton crunched the fastest serve of the tournament at 228 kph and jointly won the most first-serve percentage points.
He has been clutch in tight moments, too. Aside from saving the match point, Shelton owns a 5-0 record in tiebreak or 7-5 sets.
Dad — a right-hander who thrived on grass, once upsetting world No.2 Michael Stich at Wimbledon — has been watching back in the US even with the considerable time difference.
“I’ve watched every match. Lisa and I are just so proud of Ben,” Bryan told ausopen.com, referring to Shelton’s mum. “Just for how he’s handling these new situations. First time traveling outside the country these last couple weeks and just getting amazing experiences.
“The kid just loves to compete and it’s fun to see him in that environment on those big courts with a lot of people. He hasn’t always had the crowd behind him, either."
“He’s handled those situations extremely well. I think back about my playing days, and I would not have been ready to handle those same situations at his age.”
Shelton’s ranking has soared to 65 and will dip inside the top 45 if he defeats pal J.J. Wolf — a product of Ohio State in the college system — on Monday for a quarterfinal spot.
“It’s surprising he’s been on this fast track the last couple of years,” said his father.
“He came to college a year early and left after two years. Playing on the professional tour, jumped into the top 100 in basically six months’ time, main draw of a Grand Slam. I mean, that’s enough for right now I would think. But in Ben’s mind, I guess he just wants more.
“I do believe in him, and I believe he can continue to do great things in this game. Hopefully he’ll be a great ambassador for the game moving forward.”
How much he has progressed struck the younger Shelton himself as he downed Popyrin at the Australian Open’s third largest show court, John Cain Arena.
“Definitely a few moments where I was looking around, like, ‘Wow, this stadium is pretty packed,’” he said. “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."