Ben Shelton rocks back and forth before he serves like a predator waiting for the perfect moment to attack. His right foot sits just a toothpick’s width from the baseline. What his opponent is doing to prepare 80 feet away often does not matter.
With his racquet-bearing left hand and ball-holding right hand clasped together, the Shelton machine moves into motion. Three things happen at once — the American calmly tosses the ball into the air, develops his left arm into a ready position with his elbow up and, perhaps most vitally, manouevres his left foot next to his right to build momentum, with both feet pivoting parallel to the baseline.
As the ball floats in the air, Shelton sits into a deep crouch and opens his shoulders, coiling in preparation for an eruption. Time stands still. Right as the ball hits its peak, Shelton soars upwards.
“It’s explosive,” said Scott Perelman, a longtime assistant coach at the University of Florida, where Shelton competed for two years. “It’s like a rocket shooting up off the ground.”
With both feet in the air, Shelton crushes the ball with devastating effect. Sometimes, he simply pulverises it. On many occasions, he imparts a variety of spin to manipulate the ball however he desires, to whichever target in the box he chooses. On Sunday against Tommy Paul in his fourth-round match, which he won in four sets, the 20-year-old hit two 149 mph serves in one game. The US Open record is 152 mph, struck in 2004 by former World No. 1 Andy Roddick, widely considered one of the best servers in history.
“I think [it was] straight adrenaline. Any other atmosphere, I don’t think I could get it done. I think my arm might fall off,” Shelton said in his on-court interview. “But it’s feeling pretty good right now.”
“I was besides myself. I’ve never seen that before. In my life. I’m going to be 68 next year,” Perelman said. “So I’ve been watching this game a long, long time. I’ve seen some of the best servers in the world. To see that back to back in the Ad court like that, I was just speechless.”
Photo: Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour
In isolation, those 149 mph serves only earned Shelton two points in the match. Ask Ben’s father, Bryan Shelton, or Perelman, and they will quickly explain they would rather him not chase speed. At 6’4”, the American does not have the height typically associated with big servers like John Isner, Ivo Karlovic and Reilly Opelka, but pound-for-pound, his serve is just as effective, with the ability to hit all areas of the service boxes with a variety of speeds and spins.
“He’s worked hard to get everything to be in sync like that. But when he’s got it going, as you can see, I don’t think that we’re out of line in saying if he doesn’t have the best serve in the game, it’s surely one of the best serves in the game,” Perelman said. “And he’s just finishing up year one [on Tour]. I still don’t think he’s totally grown into his body. I think he is still going to get stronger and a bit faster.”
Shelton leads the US Open with 62 aces and has hit by far the fastest serves. That is not bad for someone who did not fully commit to tennis until just before his teens.
Perelman became a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Florida when Shelton was nine years old. Ben’s father, former World No. 55 Bryan Shelton, was the head coach. The younger Shelton played football and baseball, not tennis.
“He actually swore to me at a younger age that he would never play tennis,” Perelman recalled, cracking a laugh.
“I remember vividly when he started playing, and it was because Bryan had come out with his daughter, Emma. And Bryan and Emma were working out in the early morning before school, and Ben in my opinion, after a bit, got a little jealous. And he said, ‘Hey, Dad, do you mind if I join in?’ And Bryan said, ‘Of course’, and that was the beginning of what you’re seeing today.”
For years, Shelton was focussed on playing quarterback. It was not until he realised that with a world-class tennis coach and former pro as a father, turning his attention to tennis might be a good idea. But countless reps of throwing the football have seeped into Shelton’s tennis, especially his serve.
“Oh my gosh, there’s no doubt. There’s no doubt [it helped]. That’s probably the biggest reason,” Bryan Shelton told ATPTour.com last year. “Hopefully there’s something that we passed on as parents. But how you develop what gifts you have is really the key. Getting his elbow up and doing certain things with the football, and really trying to perfect that kind of allowed him to come into tennis and really develop that as a weapon, I think.
“I think that’s a big part of why he loves everything above his head, whether it’s an overhead or a serve. He’s pretty dynamic with that.”
Perelman added: “I think Ben has got a live arm. You see this guy throw a football and you’ll be amazed. The guy can probably throw that football 50, 60 yards in the air fairly easily. And then the other side of him is his athleticism, his explosiveness is just off the charts in a lot of ways.”
After his third-round win against Aslan Karatsev on Grandstand, Shelton threw a ball into the commentator’s box, a perfect strike to Christopher Eubanks, his close friend and Wimbledon quarter-finalist, who was calling the match. It was a throw that would have impressed NFL star Aaron Rodgers, who watched Shelton defeat Paul Sunday. “I was stunned,” Rodgers commented on Instagram of Shelton’s 149 mph serves. “Kid is special.”
The explosiveness Perelman was referring to is a sentiment echoed by United States Davis Cup captain and all-time doubles great Bob Bryan, one of the biggest lefty servers of his own generation.
“Ben gets some of the deepest knee bend and highest push off from the ground I’ve ever seen on a serve,” Bryan said. “Allowing him to create massive power and incredible shape.”
Perelman realised Shelton’s serve had the potential to be something special in the same moment he discovered the lefty had an athletic gift.
“I went and watched him play football when he was younger and I could tell early on that he was special,” Perelman said. “He played quarterback. He was by far not the biggest kid out there. But when he would get pummeled by the biggest kid out there, tackled, he’d just jump right up and run right back into the huddle.
“You can tell he had no fear as a youngster. He’s playing against guys twice his size. This is another one of his gifts. He embraces the moment of the challenge versus having any sort of hesitation or worry or concern about how big a stage it might be or how big a moment might be.”
That has become apparent on the world’s biggest stages. Against Paul, Shelton grasped the 23,000 fans in his hand and harnessed their energy when others would have felt nerves.
The story of Shelton’s development has been told often. He did not travel internationally as a junior because his father wanted him to first become the best in Florida and then in the United States.
In October 2021, well before turning professional, Shelton played an ITF World Tennis Tour event in Vero Beach, Florida, called the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships. Still seven months away from winning the NCAA Singles title, Shelton was already making an impression with his game, especially his serve.
“You’d hear this thunderous clap when it came off the racquet. And then half a second later, you heard another clap, when the ball hit the signage in the corner for our biggest sponsor,” said Randy Walker, the event’s tournament director. “We just started to laugh that the ball would perfectly hit that piece of signage, every time he hit a wide flat serve, whether it was an ace or if it was a fault that went by, just ‘Clank’, it hit that sponsor signage.”
During his second-round match, Shelton shattered the signage. Later in the week, he signed it for the sponsor, writing “My bad”.
“Before he was hitting 149-mile per hour bombs at Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Walker said. “He was hitting close to that ruining sponsor signage at a $15,000 Futures event in Vero Beach, Florida as a college sophomore.”
Shelton broke onto the ATP Tour scene last American summer after winning the NCAA Singles title. He stunned Casper Ruud in Cincinnati and shortly thereafter turned professional. Shelton reached the quarter-finals of this year’s Australian Open and by upsetting Paul, to whom he lost in Melbourne, became the youngest American man to make the US Open quarter-finals since Roddick in 2002. Between the two runs, he did not win multiple tour-level matches in a row, but he had not previously travelled outside the country or played on red clay or grass.
The scary part for the rest of the ATP Tour is that Shelton is still improving, both physically and in terms of his tennis skills. With his serve where it already is, the American is already capable of challenging any opponent on any given day.
“I’ve seen him do some leg workouts, working out with 4, 5, 600 pounds at times. This guy is a stallion. I told Bryan, several years ago that coaching Ben was like riding Secreteriat. And to this day, I absolutely believe it,” Perelman said. “He’s got maybe one of the greatest horses ever to run, period. That’s how I felt. I’ve watched this kid grow up. His competitive spirit is off the charts.
“I was with him every day when he was in college for two years, he did not lose a single race a single time for two straight years. The guy at 6 o’clock in the morning, he’s ready to go. 7 o’clock at night, he’s ready to go. He’s ready to go all the time. The guy has got a motor that just keeps beating and beating and beating and beating, and he loves it.”
In his first full season as a pro, Shelton entered the US Open eighth in first-serve points won according to Infosys ATP Stats. Paul tried throwing off Shelton with kindness inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, to no avail.
“You want to get them out of the rhythm but you don’t want to be disrespectful in any way. I try and be overly respectful,” Paul said. “Maybe it will get him out of his rhythm. Like on changeovers, ‘Dude, you’re serving great today’, that sort of thing. Hit him with a couple of those today but he had no reaction to it. It wasn’t really working.”
Feliciano Lopez, the recently retired Spaniard who has hit more aces than any other lefty in history (10,261), has been impressed by Shelton’s delivery.
“His serve is just so natural and effortless. I am sure he’s been practising his serve throughout his career, but I personally think that you have to be a bit gifted as well in order to have such a serve like he has,” Lopez said. “On top of that his power is massive and the speed he averages is probably the highest in the game. I do think that over the next few years his serve will be even more effective due to the experience he will gain.”
No matter what happens when Shelton plays countryman Frances Tiafoe Tuesday evening under the New York lights, the lefty has made it clear to everyone that backed by one of the best serves in the game, he is not going anywhere.
“He’s improving all the time, and you feel his passion and his love for the game,” Perelman said. “To me, that’s another sign that he didn’t start at two, three, four years old, and by 10 or 11, had already put in seven or eight years. So Benny is nowhere near burnt out. That fire is lit, and it’s lit at a very high level.”