MELBOURNE, Australia — Previous to coming to New Zealand and Australia this month, Ben Shelton had by no means left america. Now, his first journey abroad has been prolonged after he defeated rising Australian Alexei Popyrin within the third spherical.

“It feels nice,” Shelton mentioned of creating the final 16 of a Slam. “I mentioned on court docket it was a little bit of a pinch-me expertise.”

Shelton’s path to skilled tennis started on the U.S. collegiate stage, taking part in for the College of Florida in Gainesville, for probably the most half beneath the watchful eye of his father (and Gators coach), Bryan Shelton.

Bryan Shelton was knowledgeable tennis participant, successful two ATP titles in Newport within the early ’90s after a collegiate profession at Georgia Tech. And whereas Ben initially did not need to take up tennis and comply with in his previous man’s footsteps, he relented at age 12, selecting up a racket and embarking on a journey that may see them reunite in school.

And whereas it’s usually the case that proficient younger Europeans or Australians hit the professional circuits of their teenagers (you solely want to have a look at the Fruhvirtova sisters in Melbourne this 12 months), professionally, the 20-year-old’s profession solely actually began to take off halfway via 2022.

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His breakthrough got here on the Masters 1000 occasion in Cincinnati in August. Ranked No. 229 on the time, Shelton received two matches towards top-60 opponents — beating Lorenzo Sonego within the first spherical, however crucially towards Casper Ruud within the second spherical for his first win towards a top-5 opponent.

He determined in August that he would go away the Florida program to go professional, and the big-serving left-hander then bought a style for Grand Slam tennis — a first-round loss to No. 104-ranked Nuno Borges in 5 units.

Those that had been watching Shelton’s progress knew speedy enchancment (and a speedy stand up the rankings) was coming. After his US Open debut, he rattled off consecutive Challenger Tour match victories in Charlottesville, Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Champaign, Illinois, accounting for quite a few gamers within the prime 200 and exhibiting the world he was prepared for a step up in high quality and opponent.

Cue, the passport.

“There have been gamers inside the U.S. that would problem me and beat me each week, and I wasn’t successful each single USTA match that I used to be taking part in. So my dad’s ideas had been, ‘I am enhancing right here, I am not the very best within the nation, and so there’s probably not a motive to go to a distinct nation the place I most likely would lose and study a number of the identical issues,'” Shelton mentioned of why he’d by no means left the U.S. prior to now.

“I am undecided if there was a second the place issues clicked or it was simply I knew that I used to be making gradual enhancements in my recreation. I simply began trusting myself an increasing number of going into the summer time.

“The extra that I competed at a better stage, I had extra belief in myself to maintain shifting ahead.”

The belief led him down beneath and the begin to his summer time was constructive; after a loss in qualifying in Adelaide, Shelton then defeated world No. 41 Sebastian Baez in Auckland earlier than falling to No. 64-ranked Quentin Halys.

Nonetheless, he had already comfortably secured himself a spot within the Australian Open fundamental draw and made his Melbourne debut properly away from the hustle and bustle on Courtroom 14.

Since leaving the College of Florida to go professional, Shelton’s enhancements this 12 months have led to an inevitable stand up the ranks. Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports activities

After his Slam debut in New York with a five-set epic, Shelton backed it up with one other within the first spherical right here, incomes his first main win over China’s Zhang Zhizhen in three hours and 31 minutes. After saluting on match level within the fifth-set tiebreaker, Shelton did the Gator Chop to a small entourage and a few followers who had been observing the match.

He then defeated Chilean qualifier Nicolas Jarry in straight units within the second spherical earlier than taking down Popyrin — and the raucous Aussie crowd at John Cain Enviornment — within the third. The Australian had type, defeating American No. 1 Taylor Fritz within the second spherical, however Shelton’s work price, serve and pace was an excessive amount of.

Following their match, Popyrin mentioned that Shelton was “a pressure to be reckoned with” and may very well be within the prime 10 in a matter of months. So how far can he go, at the least in Melbourne? Effectively, Shelton’s path ahead on the Australian Open is a comparatively form one.

Compatriot J.J. Wolf awaits within the fourth spherical. The pair have by no means met, however Wolf is ranked simply 18 locations above Shelton at No. 67 on this planet. It is one other winnable match that would prolong Shelton’s inconceivable run to a quarterfinal.

And given the seeds which have already fallen in his quarter of the draw (2-seed Ruud, 8-seed Fritz, 12-seed Alexander Zverev and 13-seed Matteo Berrettini), there is no motive somebody like Shelton cannot go even additional. If issues go properly for him, ready within the quarterfinal could be both Tommy Paul (one other American, ranked No. 112) or Roberto Bautista Agut (ranked No. 24), who’s coming off a five-set match within the second spherical, and a grueling four-setter towards Andy Murray.

Monday’s conflict with Wolf may not be the final we see of Shelton or the Gator Chop in Melbourne this 12 months.

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