The 21-12 months-Outdated American Tennis Star Who Is Daring to Be Completely different

by Christina S. Brown
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I needed to be just a little bit totally different from anybody else,” Ben Shelton mentioned lately in Madrid.

He was really speaking about his determination final yr to signal a significant take care of the small-but-growing Swiss shoe and attire producer On, somewhat than pursuing a sure American behemoth with a well-known swoosh. (Extra on that in a bit.) The Floridian was within the early days of a three-month sojourn in Europe that can final so long as he does at Wimbledon, which ends in mid-July.

However Shelton, who’s 21, may have been speaking about something to do along with his budding tennis profession, which has been the other of cookie-cutter. 

Soccer (the American variety), along with tennis, till center college? Completely different.

Common highschool somewhat than a tennis academy? Completely different.

Zero junior Grand Slam appearances? Completely different.

Main doses of collegiate exuberance: the “Yeah!” after massive and small pictures, the since-retired, hang-up-the-phone exclamation level on his wins? Completely different. 

And now that the clay swing is right here, Shelton is as soon as extra reducing towards the grain, shifting on to Rome and the Italian Open as he treats a third-round loss in Spain final week as simply one other step in tackling one thing that has beguiled most American males for lengthy whereas. 

That may be that crimson clay.


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The straightforward brutality of Shelton’s tennis, which carried him to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open final yr, may be deceiving.

He can blast his serve at 150mph (241kph) and rocket forehands like few others, reducing factors brief at a breath or stealing momentum in a rally.

At first look, that offers him the type of stereotypical, massive American recreation that gained’t simply translate to the grime. Different notable Yanks with these qualities have mainly held their noses and endured these months of attritional-style tennis, counting the times till the grass and arduous courts of summer season. 

Properly, that’s not how Shelton rolls.

He spent the 2 weeks main as much as his departure for Spain at a hardcore clay-court boot camp. “I labored on the issues that I wanted to: on the courtroom, off the courtroom, energy, health, shifting,” he mentioned. “I simply actually honed in.”

Reasonably than enduring the comfortable stuff, Shelton is embracing it. That is one thing different American males have historically prevented, together with his personal father and coach, Bryan, a touring professional within the Eighties and Nineties. He typically swerved crimson clay aside from the French Open, and the odd different match, for many of his profession.

“I spotted too late that my recreation was fairly well-suited to it,” he mentioned after a observe session along with his son final week. “I had this massive kick-serve. I may push guys again. It opened up the courtroom.” He shook his head, nonetheless aggravated along with his youthful self, 30 years on.

His child isn’t letting such assumptions take root. He’s taking a unique method. 

Late final yr, Shelton requested Gabriel Echevarria, a veteran coach, to hitch his workforce full-time as a energy and conditioning coach. It was one other off-beat however logical transfer for somebody who’s as robust as a lumberjack and may run like a deer however stays susceptible to being wrong-footed or taken off-balance.

Shelton desires to maneuver on the grime like the very best of them (Julian Finney/Getty Photos)

Echevarria, who spent the previous dozen years working for the U.S. Tennis Affiliation and Tennis Australia, is Argentinian. He has a repute for possessing a particular information of what it takes to realize correct motion and stability in tennis — particularly on clay, the most typical tennis floor in Argentina.

The perfect candidate to guide a crash course.

The most typical mistake for clay-court newbies, Echevarria mentioned, is sliding after the shot, which wastes time, somewhat than sliding into the shot. Sure pictures require fewer steps, or smaller ones, or an additional step. 

“If we study the talent, then we will develop the talent, however the very first thing is to study the right method,” Echevarria explains. “When you study the right method, the mannequin sample, then we will develop that talent.”

Shelton perceives Echevarria as a sort of clay whisperer, who has helped him to know its idiosyncrasies. “The clay courtroom is just a bit bit totally different than the arduous courtroom,” Shelton says. “You possibly can’t do the identical issues.”

So, earlier than every day of coaching, not in Monte Carlo or Barcelona the place tournaments had been taking place however again dwelling in Florida, Echevarria and Shelton’s father would discuss what motion to give attention to. Typically, it was studying how you can run diagonally, which occurs typically on clay due to all of the drop pictures and slices. Different instances, it was how you can get better and shift from one shot to the following.

Then, Shelton would head onto the courtroom to check out what he had simply realized for 2 or three hours. After a break and a few lunch, afternoons consisted of extra time on the courtroom if Bryan felt it was needed, and/or as much as 90 minutes within the health club. It was gruelling, and uncovered Shelton to the necessity to attune himself to what he discovered underneath his toes.

“Each clay courtroom is just a bit bit totally different,” he says.

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Shelton’s serve permits him to dominate, even on the slower floor (Julian Finney/Getty Photos)

“The bounces are unpredictable, so you may’t all the time depend on short-hopping a ball — taking a ball early. You will get too near the bounce or set your toes too early and the bounce may be unpredictable and go in a course that you just don’t suppose it’s gonna go,” he explains.

That is significantly true in Madrid, the place the altitude (2,000ft/650m above sea degree) provides pace to the flight of the ball, creating the sort of situations that left Daniil Medvedev gesturing at his teaching workforce with impotent rage, annoyed by being in the appropriate place on the incorrect time, or possibly the opposite method round. Rome, softer, slower, at sea degree, carries its personal quirks.

Shelton? He isn’t bothered. He’s considerate, and he’s right here for it.

“You could have just a little bit extra time to play as a result of, in most locations, the clay is just a little bit slower than arduous courts, however really right here in Madrid, it’s actually quick,” he mentioned.

“However for probably the most half, the sport slows down a bit. So you’ve got extra time, which I actually like. However on the similar time, you gotta learn to use that point and learn to defend towards guys who even have extra time.”



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These are the phrases of somebody decided to not repeat their father’s sins, somebody who desires to be just a little totally different than what a whole lot of the world may anticipate of a participant along with his distinctive model of uncooked energy and athleticism.

It was not so totally different from the selection he made just a little greater than a yr in the past to roll the cube a bit in that take care of On. 

He had attended faculty on the College of Florida, a quintessential Nike college. So lots of the greatest figures in American tennis and American sports activities have turn out to be synonymous with the swoosh through the years: John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and on and on. 

“I didn’t wish to be considered one of 50 Nike guys,” Shelton says. “Clearly it was additionally an enormous draw with On having most likely the largest icon within the historical past of tennis — you realize, aside from, like, Serena (Williams).” Shelton is referencing Roger Federer, who acquired a major stake in On 5 years in the past, with the corporate constructing and launching a debut tennis attire assortment on the again of his involvement, together with that of Shelton and the ladies’s world No 1 Iga Swiatek.

Right here was Shelton, a dude, a male tennis star no much less, sort of, type of, placing Federer a slot behind Serena Williams within the sport’s pecking order, or at the least placing them on the identical aircraft. That doesn’t occur too typically.

Shelton on his option to the title in Houston this yr (Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Photos)

On an unseasonably chilly Saturday night in Madrid two weeks in the past, Shelton took the courtroom for his opening match towards Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic.

Machac, who’s 23, has been tearing by way of among the finest gamers on this planet this season. He performs a silky, deceptively highly effective, all-court recreation and, like most central European gamers, largely grew up on clay. 

He could also be ranked 35 spots under Shelton, who’s now world No. 14, however he’s the type of participant who has confirmed to be a nightmare for Individuals on clay virtually eternally.

Shelton promptly tore by way of Machac, 6-0, 6-2. 

He used his energy to push the Czech far behind the baseline, then moved ahead himself, sending volleys and drop pictures into the open courtroom. He took benefit of that little further time clay offers — “I like time on the ball,” he says — and jumped throughout Machac’s second serve, taking it early, claiming the momentum.

Two days later, Shelton was a degree away from a possible cruise to a straight-set win over Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan. He struggled to deal with a few Bublik’s notoriously relentless drop pictures, scrambling uncomfortably, and that allowed Bublik the crack of sunshine he wanted to climb again into the match. The Kazakh would win in three units, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4.

This was the stay model of the clay tutorial Shelton is searching for from Echevarria. Whatever the defeat, it was a 180-degree turnaround from when he landed in Europe a yr in the past for his first red-clay season. “Final yr, I simply had no concept what to anticipate,” he mentioned.

That’s not his fault. There simply isn’t a whole lot of crimson clay in America, the place gamers largely study the sport on arduous courts.



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Rising up in Florida, Shelton performed some on inexperienced clay, which is more durable to maneuver on and produces far much less predictable bounces than the crimson selection. Sloane Stephens, one other Floridian and the 2018 French Open runner-up, calls crimson clay “the true stuff”. Nonetheless, Shelton barely hit a ball on clay after he turned 16 and his focus shifted to school tennis, which is a hard-court affair.

His match at present, Friday Might 10, in Rome towards Pavel Kotov might be simply his sixteenth skilled contest on clay, and that features 4 wins within the U.S. Clay Courtroom Championships in Houston early final month. He gained that match and, whereas any ATP Tour title is nothing to sneeze at, Shelton knew he remained properly wanting being able to contend at Roland Garros. So, the boot camp. The educational. The discomfort, the embrace of one thing not fairly what he anticipated. Being, in a phrase, totally different.

Some good tennis gamers turn out to be nice by turning into a better high quality model of the participant they had been once they first broke into the tour. Others go from good to nice by opening their thoughts to new expertise.

What’s Shelton? 

“He’s like a sponge,” Echevarria says.

Shelton’s slingshot serve is a trademark of his recreation (On)

Shelton emerged from that boot camp believing he may thrive on clay, possibly not at present or tomorrow, however ultimately.

Clay forces him to turn out to be the sort of participant he desires to be — a menace on each floor not just because his serve is a game-altering cruise missile, however as a result of he can transfer the ball across the courtroom with spin and peak over the web, and are available into the web and volley into an open courtroom and grind when the second requires it.

“Individuals haven’t had the very best success within the clay-court season or at Roland Garros, but it surely’d be actually cool to vary that narrative,” he says.

He additionally doesn’t suppose he has a alternative. Clay season lasts two months. It’s not the four-week dash grass season is. There are just too many rankings factors up for grabs on clay courts for somebody with designs on reaching the highest of the sport to concede something.

Individuals aren’t usually recognized for his or her persistence. They like stuff now — fast gratification. Specializing in course of over outcomes doesn’t all the time come naturally. However as soon as extra, Shelton is just a little totally different in that space, with some nudging from Echevarria and his father.

He’s approaching this clay swing as he did the boot camp, as a chance to study, to gather data, to investigate how he has improved, to see if he can execute all these step patterns and all that sliding on probably the most well-known crushed crimson brick on this planet. 

If successful occurs, nice. If not? Nice. Identical to clay requires, Staff Shelton is enjoying a protracted recreation. 

“We don’t get annoyed,” Echevarria says. “We don’t fear about it as a result of we all know that, guess what? The French Open goes to be performed on clay subsequent yr. It’s going to be performed on clay for 100 years.”

(Prime images: L-R: On; Centre: ATP Tour; design: Dan Goldfarb)

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