Laver Cup: How cool, confident Ben Shelton became talk of the tennis world

‘I tend to play my best tennis when I’m having fun. Maybe some people would think the way I act on the court — I’ve seen some think it’s arrogance — but it’s just a kid having fun.’ — Ben Shelton

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Ben Shelton looks like a football player.

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The latest loud-and-proud tennis sensation is a bundle of boundless energy on and off the court, who commands attention, adoration and a level of angst from overwhelmed competitors.

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The unseeded, 20-year-old Florida product bullied his way to the U.S. Open semifinal earlier this month in the spotlight and mugginess of New York against the legendary Novak Djokovic.

Ben Shelton
Ben Shelton of Team World plays table tennis with NHL player Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks (not pictured) ahead of the Laver Cup at Rogers Arena on September 19, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo by Clive Brunskill /Getty Images for Laver Cup

Shelton lost in straight sets, but came alive in the third to send a message. He can exchange serves and volleys with the best — he twice clocked service aces at 239 kilometres per hour (149 mph) — and nobody in that event could mirror that cannon and kick action. His celebrations were just as memorable as his dynamic multi-faceted game, and that produced a new world ranking of No. 19.

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“It was spell-binding, his whole performance,” said commentator Patrick McEnroe.

In Shelton’s quarterfinal victory over fellow American Frances Tiafoe, who will be his Team World teammate when the Laver Cup commences Friday at Rogers Arena, the left-hander mugged for the raucous U.S. Open crowd with a look of dominant victory meanness. 

“The thing to me that summed up his whole tournament was playing the tie-breaker with Tiafoe in the third set, tied at 1-1, and the match probably riding on that set,” added McEnroe. “He’s serving at set point with the biggest serve going, and at 6-5 in the tie-break, he goes double fault and double fault.

“I’m thinking the guy cracked. And then Tiafoe hits a nice second serve and Shelton hit a ball from way back that you would never teach anybody. And he puts it (the return) down the line for a winner and in the corner.

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“You tell players to loop the ball and get it deep to set up the point. This guy just absolutely goes for it and makes it because he’s got the combination of amazing speed, a massive serve and self-belief. And he loves it. That’s what people are most attracted to.”

Shelton then added an exclamation mark by pretending to have a phone in his hand and hanging it up. It drew support and scrutiny.

“I’m saying I’m dialled in,” Shelton would tell the post-match media.

Djokovic was not amused. He mimicked the imaginary phone move after dispatching Shelton.

“I’m always going to stay true to myself,” Shelton said Tuesday at Rogers Arena. “I know what my character is and what’s inside me, and I don’t need to prove what things are. Those who know me well, they knew the celebration was a shout-out to my friends back home in Florida.

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“As long as my inner circle knows what I stand for and what I support, I’m not worried what a random (social media) account on Twitter says.”

Ben Shelton, Elias Pettersson
Ben Shelton of Team World and NHL player Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks pose ahead of the Laver Cup at Rogers Arena on September 19, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo by Clive Brunskill /Getty Images for Laver Cup

A measure of confidence and cockiness are fuel for young stars — as long as they can back up the bravado with results. Team World captain John McEnroe had that presence and dominance when he burst on the scene as an 18-year-old. He had to qualify for Wimbledon in 1977, and advanced to the semifinal against Jimmy Connors.

“I tend to play my best tennis when I’m having fun,” added Shelton. “Maybe some people would think the way I act on the court — I’ve seen some think it’s arrogance — but it’s just a kid having fun. I try to respect the game and definitely have confidence in it and I want to be a humble guy off court. 

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“But when I’m on it, I want to do everything to win. I’m high on energy. I take a lot out of a run like that at the U.S. Open — areas where I could take advantage or needed to improve — and it motivated me a lot.”

Along with the emergence came expectation and execution. A quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open to kick off this memorable year was proof that he could do more than talk the talk. And when he had success at the NCAA level — winning team and singles championships with Florida — he knew he was on the right career trajectory.

“I played a Challenger event coming out of college and made the semis,” said Shelton. “I beat a couple who were top-200 and knew my game could transition to the pro level. There was something there.”

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Ben Shelton
USA’s Ben Shelton gives a thumbs up as he leaves the court after losing to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the US Open tennis tournament men’s singles semi-finals at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 8, 2023. (Photo by kena betancur / AFP) Photo by KENA BETANCUR /AFP via Getty Images

Shelton gravitated toward tennis growing up, but didn’t immediate take to a sport that his father, Bryan, commanded as a player and coach at the University of Florida. His mother, Lisa, was also a highly ranked junior, his uncle was a pro player, and his sister also played at Florida.

Shelton favoured football while living in Atlanta. He started playing at age six and was a quarterback and safety, but stopped completely at age 12 and switched to tennis.

“My sister was playing a lot of tournament and got to travel and miss school and I thought was cool and wanted to join,” said Shelton. “I was also a bit of a later grower. I was a good football player and very skilled, but the others were bigger than me. I was getting pummelled.

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“I thought I could go further in tennis.”

bkuzma@postmedia.com


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