Gators NCAA champion Ben Shelton is giving American fans hope with a surprise run to the Australian Quarters

Michelle Kaufman, Miami Herald

Unless you got up before dawn to watch the Australian Open, or are a die-hard tennis fan of the Florida Gators, you may have missed the appearance of Ben Shelton, one of the most compelling stories in American tennis in a long time.

A year ago, Shelton is ranked No. 569 in the world and is preparing for his sophomore season at the University of Florida, where his father, Brian, a former professional and fourth-rounder at Wimbledon, is coaching men’s tennis.

Shelton’s main goal at the time was to win the NCAA title, which he did last spring. The 6-4 lefty with shaggy hair, a booming serve, and an all-around match burst onto the Pro Tour over the summer as a wild entry and proved he belonged. He made international headlines in mid-August after overhauling fifth-ranked Casper Rudd at the French Open 6-3 6-3 at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

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A week later, he wisely chose to forgo his final two years of college eligibility and turn professional, prior to the US Open. His social media posts that day read: “I will be pursuing my finance education online while traveling on tour. I can’t wait to get out there, broaden my horizons, and see what this next chapter holds. Gator nation, I will be representing all over World. Chomp, Ben Shelton.”

Shelton now finds himself as one of three American men in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, marking the first time three Americans have reached the quarter-finals there since 2000. He is the first NCAA champion to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open the following year since Arthur Ashe in 1966.

His tournament salary so far was $372,956 heading into his late Tuesday night bout against fellow American Tommy Paul.

Not bad for a guy who had never traveled outside the US until this month. You have not used your passport. Not even for a vacation. He now has his first stamp.

Unlike other tennis parents who pulled their kids out of school and sent them abroad in search of junior ranking points, the Sheltons kept their son on American soil and insisted on an education.

Brian Shelton played for Georgia Tech and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering in 1989. He reached a career high of No. 55 in the world in 1992 and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1994. He went on to coach the Georgia women’s team Tech and the Florida men’s team, leading them to both NCAA titles—the first person to achieve the feat.

Ben’s mother, Lisa Whitskin, played junior tennis and her brother, Todd, was a three-time All-American at USC. The Sheltons felt there was plenty of opportunity for their son to work on his game locally and have a balanced life.

It seems they were right.

Take note, young sports parents out there. If your child is talented enough, and works hard enough, there’s no need to give up on an education or make the most of a credit card going around the world chasing a dream that may not come true.

Ben Shelton was 11 months old when former US superstar Andy Roddick won the 2003 US Open. Seventy-five Grand Slam tournaments have been played since that day and no American has won it.

This is not a typo. Seventy-five Grand Slam. There is no single American hero. Roddick was the last.

Over the past two decades, Serena and Venus Williams have claimed major titles in the women’s team and there have been male champions from Switzerland, Spain, Serbia, Argentina, Great Britain, Croatia, Austria and Russia. But none from the United States.

Shelton, at 20, is the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final since Roddick in 2001. For years now, we’ve been waiting for the “next great American” to replace Roddick since his retirement.

The list of American men who have dominated the sport in the Open Era is impressive: Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Roddick.

Will an American man win the Grand Slam title again?

Now, there is hope. Ten Americans will be in the top fifty next week, including Shelton. The group is headed by ninth seed Taylor Fritz and 17th seed Frances Tiafoe. Shilton, Paul and Sebastian Korda reached the first quarter of the Australian Open this week.

Despite his lineage, Shelton never imagined he would become a professional tennis player. Describe this week’s “Pinch Me Moment”. He played tennis, basketball, soccer, and soccer as a kid, with soccer being his favourite. He played quarterback and was obsessed with college football, hanging out with Georgia Tech players while on campus with his father.

But when he got to middle school, he switched from soccer to tennis.

“For the first 12 or 13 years of my life, I swore I would never play tennis,” he said this week, sporting a giant grin. “It was my dad’s thing, and I was going to let him have it. Then I fell in love with the sport and here we are. Hopefully, I can get out of it.”

Ben, this seems like a safe bet. Time will tell how far you go, but that passport is about to fill up.

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