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Ben Shelton part of growing crop of U.S. men

Tennis: Australian Open

Jan 14, 2023; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Ben Shelton of the United States hits a shot during a practice session at Melbourne Park. Mandatory Credit: Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports

MELBOURNE, Australia-- To get an idea of just how new the whole international pro tennis thing is to Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida about to make his Australian Open debut, consider this: He says he is using a passport for the first time.

There’s more that is unfamiliar to him. The Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide itinerary of airplane rides late last month that brought Shelton on his initial trip outside of the United States as he played tune-up events before the first Grand Slam tournament of 2023. Going through customs. Trying different food. Riding in cars on the left side of the road.

And that’s to say nothing of the on-court learning curve, which Shelton will continue to navigate when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park against Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old from China also never previously in the main draw there.

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “These are all a lot of experiences that I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be out here.”

It’s been said over and over and over again: No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. Shelton is part of a group of players hoping to end that drought at some point, and while it still might take some time, breakthrough performances in 2022 by Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima helped show countrymen what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, the first man from the U.S. to get that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, climbed into the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, a 21-year-old from California, won the Next Gen ATP Finals.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s cool to see those guys do amazing things. It’s something to look up to for me, for sure,” said Shelton, prone to flashing a wide smile while he speaks. “American tennis is definitely on the way up.”

A total of 13 Americans are in the ATP’s top 100, with Shelton checking in at a career-best No. 92 after turning pro last year.

“He’s a feisty competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and friend of Shelton’s. “When things aren’t going well, he is still so confident and focused on deciding to just make it go well. It’s very rare. You’re going to hear some yelling. You’re going to hear `Vamos!’ You’re going to see fist pumps. Doesn’t matter what the score is.”

Shelton’s father, Bryan, a former pro who taught Ben the game and coaches at Florida, described it as “a football mentality” that derives from time dabbling in that sport, along with basketball and soccer, as a youngster. It wasn’t until Ben turned 11 that he zeroed in on tennis - because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels like his sister, Emma, who now competes for Florida.

There are a tournament-high 14 U.S. players in the men’s bracket at the Australian Open, and the 17 in the women’s bracket also leads all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin won major trophies in women’s singles for the United States over the past two decades.)

“The American men in their 20s, there’s a lot of guys that are having success and steadily climbing up the rankings. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; I want Taylor to do the best, of course. But hopefully we’ll have an American man as a Grand Slam champion again soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his sophomore season and is taking online classes toward a degree in business, is OK with taking things one step at a time.

He is more interested in process-related goals than anything tied to rankings or results - even if he did soar 471 during 2022, which included a victory over French Open and U.S. Open runner-up Casper Ruud and three consecutive titles on the lower-level Challenger Tour.

“He’s had a lot of success, but there’s so much room for improvement,” Bryan Shelton said about his son. “He recognizes that.”

There weren’t as many surprises on the court for Ben as there were off it during his initial taste of life on tour.

“The way players take care of all the things - their body, how they eat, the way they warm up, the work they do in the gym each day,” Shelton said, “I’d say that was the interesting part for me. Seeing how much it takes to be at the level that these guys are at.”