AUSTRALIAN OPEN 2023: Shelton is part of growing crop of American men

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — To get an idea of ​​how new all of international professional tennis is to…

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — To get an idea of ​​how new the entire international professional tennis it’s Ben Shelton, a 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida who is about to make his Australian Open debut, consider this: he says he is using his passport for the first time.

There is something else that he is unfamiliar with. The plane’s Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide flight itinerary late last month took Shelton on his first trip outside the United States as he took part in the build-up to the first Grand Slam in 2023. Customs clearance. I try different dishes. Driving on the left side of the road.

And that’s not to mention the on-court learning curve Shelton will continue to navigate when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park on Tuesday against Zhang Zhizheng, a 26-year-old Chinese who has also never played a major draw there.

“It’s a completely different game,” Shelton told The Associated Press. “It’s all a lot of experience that I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be here.”

It’s been said over and over and over again: No American has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 US Open. Shelton is part of a group of players hoping to end that drought at some point, and while it may take some time, breakout performances in 2022 Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima helped show his countrymen what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, reached the semifinals of the US Open, becoming the first American to reach that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, climbed into the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by defeating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, 21, from California, won the ATP Next Gen final.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s great to see these guys doing amazing things. That’s something I have to look up to, probably,” said Shelton, who tended to smile broadly as he spoke. “American tennis is definitely on the rise.”

A total of 13 Americans are ranked in the ATP top 100, with Shelton ranked a career-high 92nd after turning pro last year.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and a friend of Shelton’s who is playing Monday in Australia. “When things aren’t going so well, he’s still so confident and focused on doing well. This is very rare. You will hear some screams. You will hear “Vamos!” You will see fist pumps. It doesn’t matter what the number is.’

Shelton’s father, Brian, a former pro who taught Ben the game and coaches at Florida, described it as a “football mentality” that comes from playing the sport as a kid, along with basketball and football. It wasn’t until Ben turned 11 that he focused on tennis — because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels like his sister Emma, ​​who now plays for Florida.

The men’s Australian Open features 14 American players in the tournament draw, while the women’s 17 players also lead all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stevens and Sofia Kenin have all won major U.S. women’s singles titles in the past two decades.)

“American men in their 20s, there are a lot of guys who are successful and steadily climbing the rankings. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; Of course, I want Taylor to do his best. But hopefully we’ll have an American as a Grand Slam champion again soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his second season and is taking online classes to earn a business degree, can’t keep up.

He’s more interested in process goals than anything to do with rankings or results — even as he soared to 471 in 2022, which included wins over French Open and US Open runner-up Kasper Ruud, and three titles in a row at the lower level. Challenger Tour.

“He’s had a lot of success, but there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Brian Shelton said of his son. “He admits it.”

There weren’t as many surprises for Ben on the set as during his initial taste of life on tour.

“The way the players take care of everything — their bodies, how they eat, how they warm up, the work they do in the gym every day,” Shelton said, “I’d say that was the interesting part for me. Seeing how much it takes to be at the level these guys are at.”

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