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Ben Shelton Is Ready to Go Global

MELBOURNE, Australia — Pro tennis is one of the most international sports, but the American Ben Shelton has only just become global.

This Australian Open, which starts on Monday, is part of his first trip outside the United States. His passport is in mint condition; his eyes are almost as big as his lefty serve.

“A whole lot of blue; it almost doesn’t look real,” Shelton said as he walked the grounds at Melbourne Park, with its azure signage and courts, for the first time this week. “It’s like an alternate world.”

Shelton, a strapping and mop-topped 20-year-old from Gainesville, Fla., who is embarking on his first full season on tour, earned his spot in Melbourne in a hurry, making the biggest leap into the year-end top 100 of any men’s singles player in 2022.

He did it by winning in the big leagues: He upset Casper Ruud, a French Open and U.S. Open finalist in 2022, in the second round of the Masters 1000 event in Mason, Ohio, in August.

But Shelton did it, above all, by winning in the minor leagues, taking three consecutive titles indoors on the Challenger circuit in November to secure direct entry into the Australian Open based on his ranking. He had already guaranteed himself a wild-card slot — part of a reciprocal agreement for Grand Slam entries between the United States Tennis Association and Tennis Australia — by compiling the best results among eligible Americans in the late season. But that was not the path down under that he preferred.

“Ben was like, ‘I don’t want to see that W.C. next to my name,’ and so he dug down in the final of that last Challenger,” said Dean Goldfine, one of his coaches. “I think a lot of guys would have been satisfied, and he was exhausted from playing three weeks in a row. But he powered through, and that put him in the top 100.”

In early June, shortly after winning the N.C.A.A. singles title as a sophomore at the University of Florida, Shelton was ranked No. 547. This week, he is up to No. 92 and practicing in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne with the likes of Rafael Nadal, the Spanish megastar and reigning Australian Open champion. Nadal was in need of a powerful left-handed sparring partner to prepare for his tricky opening-round match Monday against the rising British 21-year-old Jack Draper.

Shelton, a Nadal admirer, was delighted to get the call and will face the unseeded Zhang Zhizhen of China on Tuesday in his Australian Open debut.

Nadal, above, was in need of a powerful left-handed sparring partner to prepare for his tricky opening-round match. Shelton, below, was delighted to get the call.Credit…Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“I’m really excited to play main draw of my very first Slam out of the country,” Shelton said. “Maybe eight months ago I wouldn’t think I’d be in this position, but I’m lucky I have a good team around me helping me.”

Shelton’s girlfriend is Anna Hall, a heptathlete who won a bronze medal at the world track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., in July. Shelton, who was competing in a Challenger in Indianapolis that week, watched her events on his phone between matches. Both Hall and Shelton turned professional last summer and, though he has trounced her in pickleball, he likes to point out that he is not the best athlete of the two.

“She’s outshining me,” he said.

“It’s great, actually,” Goldfine said. “Because they challenge each other, and she totally understands what it takes to be at an elite level.”

Shelton, at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, has a percussive, all-court game, based around a big-bang forehand and serve and an attacking mentality that often carries him to the net. He is “still raw” and still figuring out the best patterns of play, according to Goldfine, who has coached the former top players Todd Martin and Andy Roddick and most recently helped coach the 22-year-old American Sebastian Korda.

But, to Goldfine, Shelton’s upside is clear.

“I think with the natural gifts he has — his athleticism, his love for competing and for taking challenges head-on and his mental toughness — I think Ben has the possibility to be a great player who can someday challenge for Grand Slam titles,” he said. “He has all the variables you see in the top players, and being a lefty helps, definitely.”

Shelton certainly has fine tennis genes. His father, Bryan, the men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida, was ranked as high as No. 55 during his pro career and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier in 1994. Ben’s mother, Lisa, played junior tennis and is the sister of Todd Witsken, a three-time all-American at the University of Southern California who peaked at No. 43 in singles on the ATP Tour before tragically dying of brain cancer at age 34.

Ben’s older sister Emma is a senior on the University of Florida women’s team and was the only Shelton sibling serious about tennis until Ben quit playing football when he was 11.

“It was just for a year, but it turned out to be forever,” Bryan Shelton said. “Even though he wasn’t the happiest in the world to go out there on court and drill with me, as soon as he got to compete, man, I mean the lights came on, and he was so excited about it. So that part I thought was pretty special. Some people shy away from competition, and he never did.

“I always say he’s like a Labrador retriever: You throw the ball, he’s going to run and go get it. And if you throw it again, he’s going to run and go get it again and again and again. So, you know, he has a passion for it,” he said.

Ben’s trip to Melbourne is a full-circle moment for the Shelton family: Bryan and Lisa met in Melbourne during the 1993 Australian Open.

“How cool is that?” Ben said.

Lisa, who was helping her brother in 1993, has not returned to Australia. Bryan has not been back since 1997, and despite being his son’s primary coach, he won’t be returning this year either because of his college coaching commitments. But he is in daily contact with Ben and his traveling coach, Goldfine, who works for the U.S.T.A.’s player-development program.

“We’ve already started watching some of the video on Zhang,” Goldfine said of himself and Bryan Shelton. “We are always bouncing ideas off each other.”

Goldfine, 57, and Ben exchange plenty as well, teasing each other, in particular, about the generational gap.

“Dean couldn’t believe I didn’t know ‘Hotel California,’” Ben said, briefly halting practice on Thursday to share the story. “And I was like, ‘Dean, look at my phone and you won’t know any of the songs on my playlist.’”

Ben is the first reigning N.C.A.A. men’s singles champion to break into the top 100 since Tim Mayotte in 1981. He is also the youngest of the 14 American men in the Australian Open, and his breakthrough to this level gives the United States an even deeper roster of promising men’s talent. There are nine Americans in the top 50, led by Taylor Fritz, and eight of them are 25 years old or younger.

Ben has met most of them. As a young boy, he remembers watching Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka play a junior tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich., where Bryan Shelton was scouting potential recruits.

At that stage, there was no way to know that Ben would be the future No. 1 at Florida, of course. Though the team plays on without him, he is pursuing a business degree online and following the Gators’ scores and live streams from afar.

“I’m definitely going to miss being around a bunch of my best friends and being able to go out there on the court playing for something much bigger than myself,” Ben said. “But I’m excited to see what they do and be able to be in the stands cheering them on whenever I’m home during the spring.”

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