So when Ben dedicated himself to tennis, Bryan says, “I was shocked.”
Ben committed late—at age 11, practically ancient—and spent his years through juniors playing catch-up while going to school in Gainesville. His triumphs came in college, at the University of Florida, where his dad was now coaching. That was its own challenge. In order to not seem like Coach Dad was playing favorites, Ben was the recipient of extra criticism. “He came down harder on me than he did other guys,” Shelton says. “But I totally understood after a while that that’s the way things had to be.”
They argued a lot. They worked through it. What also helped: winning the national championship as a team in Ben’s first year. The following year in 2022, he won the singles championship. He went pro after that.
Ben Shelton is among a growing number of players proving college is an increasingly viable pathway into the tour—after decades of players feeling like they had to turn pro straight out of tennis academies. (Plus, collegiate matches tend to be much rowdier, closer to other American sports.) According to Shelton, being on a team didn’t help him get better at tennis, necessarily, but he believes it helped him with all the other stuff: “The way I handle things out here on tour, being around different people.” Photo shoots, sponsorships, the business decisions. He thinks a lot about how he carries himself, and more importantly, how he treats others.
“It’s easy for tennis players to get self-centered because everything out here on tour is catered around us,” he says. “We’re put on this pedestal, and it’s easy to just think everything is about yourself, and the world revolves around you, but it doesn’t.” For Shelton, tennis is a team sport, even when it’s not.
After a surprising run at this year’s Australian Open in January, making it to the quarters of his Melbourne Park debut, Shelton struggled to find his rhythm throughout the rest of the year. It wasn’t the pressure or expectations that came with his performance in Australia. It was the grind of tennis. Tournament after tournament, being away from home, in foreign countries and on foreign surfaces. (He’d never played on red clay or grass before this spring, and he had relatively quick exits at this summer’s Roland Garros and Wimbledon).
This dip did not surprise his father. In fact, Bryan Shelton, now Ben’s full-time coach on the tour, says the most surprising thing was coming out of the gate in Australia so strong. But losing—and losing a lot—that’s the normal part. “It’s how you take those experiences and learn from them. I think that he’s done that so well,” says Bryan. “Each loss only motivated him to work harder and to reflect and examine the parts of his game that he has to continue to improve.”
Bryan didn’t join his son until grass season, meaning he wasn’t around for a big stretch of Ben’s year. But at the US Open, he was hearing compliments from other tournament directors about how his son had handled himself on tour. “They said that Ben takes the time to give to every single one of their staff members and people that work the event, the fans and the kids…. As a father, you appreciate that even more than the wins or success or anything else on the court. That’s what matters most.”
He’s learning how to better use his platform from peers like Coco Gauff, who is famously outspoken about racial justice. Though she’s younger than him, she’s been on tour for four years, and now has a US Open championship under her belt. Coco seems like the vet, and Ben the newbie. “So she messes with me sometimes,” he says. “She’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, rookie? How’s the year going so far?’”