Wednesday, May 22

Ben Shelton interview: The American tennis star who wants to be different

I wanted to be a little bit different from anyone else,” Ben Shelton said recently in Madrid.

He was actually talking about his decision last year to sign a major deal with the small-but-growing Swiss shoe and apparel manufacturer On, rather than pursuing a certain American behemoth with a famous swoosh. (More on that in a bit.) The Floridian was in the early days of a three-month sojourn in Europe that will last as long as he does at Wimbledon, which ends in mid-July.

But Shelton, who is 21, could have been talking about anything to do with his budding tennis career, which has been the opposite of cookie-cutter. 

Football (the American kind), in addition to tennis, until middle school? Different.

Regular high school rather than a tennis academy? Different.

Zero junior Grand Slam appearances? Different.

Major doses of collegiate exuberance: the “Yeah!” after big and small shots, the since-retired, hang-up-the-phone exclamation point on his wins? Different. 

And now that the clay swing is here, Shelton is once more cutting against the grain, moving on to Rome and the Italian Open as he treats a third-round loss in Spain last week as just another step in tackling something that has beguiled most American men for a good long while. 

That would be that red clay.

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The easy brutality of Shelton’s tennis, which carried him to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open last year, can be deceiving.

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

At first glance, that gives him the sort of stereotypical, big American game that won’t easily translate to the dirt. Other notable Yanks with those qualities have basically held their noses and endured these months of attritional-style tennis, counting the days until the grass and hard courts of summer. 

Well, that’s not how Shelton rolls.

He spent the two weeks leading up to his departure for Spain at a hardcore clay-court boot camp. “I worked on the things that I needed to: on the court, off the court, strength, fitness, moving,” he said. “I just really honed in.”

Rather than enduring the soft stuff, Shelton is embracing it. This is something other American men have traditionally avoided, including his own father and coach, Bryan, a touring pro in the 1980s and 1990s. He often swerved red clay other than the French Open, and the odd other tournament, for most of his career.

“I realized too late that my game was pretty well-suited to it,” he said after a practice session with his son last week. “I had this big kick-serve. I could push guys back. It opened up the court.” He shook his head, still annoyed with his younger self, 30 years on.

His kid isn’t letting such assumptions take root. He’s taking a different approach. 

Late last year, Shelton asked Gabriel Echevarria, a veteran trainer, to join his team full-time as a strength and conditioning coach. It was another off-beat but logical move for someone who is as strong as a lumberjack and can run like a deer but remains prone to being wrong-footed or taken off-balance.


Shelton wants to move on the dirt like the best of them (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Echevarria, who spent the past dozen years working for the U.S. Tennis Association and Tennis Australia, is Argentinian. He has a reputation for possessing a special knowledge of what it takes to attain proper movement and balance in tennis — especially on clay, the most common tennis surface in Argentina.

The ideal candidate to lead a crash course.

The most common mistake for clay-court newbies, Echevarria said, is sliding after the shot, which wastes time, rather than sliding into the shot. Certain shots require fewer steps, or smaller ones, or an extra step. 

“If we learn the skill, then we can develop the skill, but the first thing is to learn the proper way,” Echevarria explains. “Once you learn the proper way, the model pattern, then we can develop that skill.”

Shelton perceives Echevarria as a kind of clay whisperer, who has helped him to understand its idiosyncrasies. “The clay court is just a little bit different than the hard court,” Shelton says. “You can’t do the same things.”

So, before each day of training, not in Monte Carlo or Barcelona where tournaments were happening but back home in Florida, Echevarria and Shelton’s father would talk about what movement to focus on. Sometimes, it was learning how to run diagonally, which happens often on clay because of all the drop shots and slices. Other times, it was how to recover and shift from one shot to the next.

Then, Shelton would head onto the court to try out what he had just learned for two or three hours. After a break and some lunch, afternoons consisted of more time on the court if Bryan felt it was necessary, and/or up to 90 minutes in the gym. It was gruelling, and exposed Shelton to the need to attune himself to what he found under his feet.

“Every clay court is just a little bit different,” he says.

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Shelton’s serve allows him to dominate, even on the slower surface (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

“The bounces are unpredictable, so you can’t always rely on short-hopping a ball — taking a ball early. You can get too close to the bounce or set your feet too early and the bounce can be unpredictable and go in a direction that you don’t think it’s gonna go,” he explains.

This is particularly true in Madrid, where the altitude (2,000ft/650m above sea level) adds speed to the flight of the ball, creating the kind of conditions that left Daniil Medvedev gesturing at his coaching team with impotent rage, frustrated by being in the right place at the wrong time, or maybe the other way around. Rome, softer, slower, at sea level, carries its own quirks.

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

“You have a little bit more time to play because, in most places, the clay is a little bit slower than hard courts, but actually here in Madrid, it’s really fast,” he said.

“But for the most part, the game slows down a bit. So you have more time, which I really like. But at the same time, you gotta learn how to use that time and learn how to defend against guys who also have more time.”

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These are the words of someone determined not to repeat their father’s sins, someone who wants to be a little different than what a lot of the world might expect of a player with his unique brand of raw power and athleticism.

It was not so different from the choice he made a little more than a year ago to roll the dice a bit in that deal with On. 

He had attended college at the University of Florida, a quintessential Nike school. So many of the biggest figures in American tennis and American sports have become synonymous with the swoosh over the years: John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and on and on. 

“I didn’t want to be one of 50 Nike guys,” Shelton says. “Obviously it was also a big draw with On having probably the biggest icon in the history of tennis — you know, other than, like, Serena (Williams).” Shelton is referencing Roger Federer, who acquired a significant stake in On five years ago, with the company building and launching a debut tennis apparel collection on the back of his involvement, along with that of Shelton and the women’s world No 1 Iga Swiatek.

Here was Shelton, a dude, a male tennis star no less, kind of, sort of, putting Federer a slot behind Serena Williams in the sport’s pecking order, or at least putting them on the same plane. That doesn’t happen too often.


Shelton on his way to the title in Houston this year (Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Images)

On an unseasonably chilly Saturday evening in Madrid two weeks ago, Shelton took the court for his opening match against Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic.

Machac, who is 23, has been tearing through some of the best players in the world this season. He plays a silky, deceptively powerful, all-court game and, like most central European players, largely grew up on clay. 

He may be ranked 35 spots below Shelton, who is now world No. 14, but he is the sort of player who has proven to be a nightmare for Americans on clay practically forever.

Shelton promptly tore through Machac, 6-0, 6-2. 

He used his power to push the Czech far behind the baseline, then moved forward himself, sending volleys and drop shots into the open court. He took advantage of that little extra time clay gives — “I love time on the ball,” he says — and jumped all over Machac’s second serve, taking it early, claiming the momentum.

Two days later, Shelton was a point away from a likely cruise to a straight-set win over Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan. He struggled to handle a couple of Bublik’s notoriously relentless drop shots, scrambling uncomfortably, and that allowed Bublik the crack of light he needed to climb back into the match. The Kazakh would win in three sets, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4.

This was the live version of the clay tutorial Shelton is seeking from Echevarria. Regardless of the defeat, it was a 180-degree turnaround from when he landed in Europe a year ago for his first red-clay season. “Last year, I just had no idea what to expect,” he said.

That’s not his fault. There just isn’t a lot of red clay in America, where players largely learn the game on hard courts.

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Growing up in Florida, Shelton played some on green clay, which is harder to move on and produces far less predictable bounces than the red variety. Sloane Stephens, another Floridian and the 2018 French Open runner-up, calls red clay “the real stuff”. Still, Shelton barely hit a ball on clay after he turned 16 and his focus shifted to college tennis, which is a hard-court affair.

His match today, Friday May 10, in Rome against Pavel Kotov will be just his 16th professional contest on clay, and that includes four wins in the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston early last month. He won that tournament and, while any ATP Tour title is nothing to sneeze at, Shelton knew he remained well short of being ready to contend at Roland Garros. So, the boot camp. The learning. The discomfort, the embrace of something not quite what he expected. Being, in a word, different.

Some good tennis players become great by becoming a higher quality version of the player they were when they first broke into the tour. Others go from good to great by opening their mind to new skills.

What’s Shelton? 

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


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

Shelton emerged from that boot camp believing he could thrive on clay, maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually.

Clay forces him to become the kind of player he wants to be — a threat on every surface not simply because his serve is a game-altering cruise missile, but because he can move the ball around the court with spin and height over the net, and come into the net and volley into an open court and grind when the moment requires it.

“Americans haven’t had the best success in the clay-court season or at Roland Garros, but it’d be really cool to change that narrative,” he says.

He also doesn’t think he has a choice. Clay season lasts two months. It’s not the four-week sprint grass season is. There are simply too many rankings points up for grabs on clay courts for someone with designs on reaching the top of the game to concede anything.

Americans aren’t generally known for their patience. They like stuff now — immediate gratification. Focusing on process over results doesn’t always come naturally. But once more, Shelton is a little different in that area, with some nudging from Echevarria and his father.

He is approaching this clay swing as he did the boot camp, as an opportunity to learn, to collect information, to analyze how he has improved, to see if he can execute all those step patterns and all that sliding on the most famous crushed red brick in the world. 

If winning happens, great. If not? Fine. Just like clay calls for, Team Shelton is playing a long game. 

“We don’t get frustrated,” Echevarria says. “We don’t worry about it because we know that, guess what? The French Open is going to be played on clay next year. It’s going to be played on clay for 100 years.”

(Top photos: L-R: On; Centre: ATP Tour; design: Dan Goldfarb)