The Florida Gators' loss of tennis star Ben Shelton could be America's gain | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Florida has had plenty of tennis players turn pro early, but the most recent announcement about Ben Shelton wasn’t quite the same.

“It’s bittersweet for me,” coach Bryan Shelton said.

The bitter is his No. 1 player, the NCAA champion, is joining the ATP Tour. The sweet is his son will never have to bum another dime off his old man.

Heck, Ben Shelton’s going to pocket $80,000 this week just for making the first round of the U.S. Open. The eventual winner will cash a check for $2.6 million, which might even be enough to find a new apartment in Gainesville.

David Whitley:Florida Gators are winning the Shelton Way

Tennis title year:What were the top 10 moments from the Florida Gators' 2020-21 sports year?

Five steps to 8 wins in football:Breaking down tough schedule Billy Napier faces in his first season

Ben Shelton makes a name for himself outside of Gainesville

Ben Shelton returns a shot during his match Aug. 18, 2022, at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

Truth is, though, Bryan Shelton’s son has gotten too big for a college town.

“Ben Shelton is poised to be the next big thing in American men's tennis,” ESPN.com’s headline proclaimed last week.

Bryan probably winced a bit when he saw that. He’s raised his 19-year-old son to ignore such flattery. At the same time, he knows there’s a reason for the hype.

In the past year, Ben has rocketed from No. 1,929 in the world (I’ve never known how the ATP can differentiate No. 1,929 from No. 1,928, but let’s just go with it) to No. 171. He’s now the third-highest ranked teenager in the world, behind No. 4 Carlos Alcaraz from Spain and No. 32 Holger Rune from Denmark.

Shelton dabbled in a few ATP events this summer, and it quickly became apparent that’s where he belongs. He got his first win over a top-100 player two weeks ago in Cincinnati, then beat No. 5 Casper Ruud from Norway.

That made Shelton the youngest American to beat a top-five player since Andy Roddick did it in 2001. But the numbers don’t capture why U.S. tennis fandom has a case of the Bens.

Only about 15% of top 100 players are left-handed, and Shelton’s one of them. His booming serves and topspin forehands go crosscourt to an opponent's weaker backhands.

He’s a lanky 6-foot-4 who bounces around the court with tousled hair and a bubbly style. The big crowds in Cincinnati were as charmed as the Gainesville tennis nuts who gathered at the Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex the past two years.

After beating Ruud, Shelton was asked if he was as cool on the inside as it appeared on the outside.

“Fake it till you make it, right?” he joked. “I wasn’t feeling calm out there, but I was trying to portray that I was calm, and I had things under control.”

Lessons from his dad and coach Bryan Shelton

Florida coach Bryan Shelton with the trophy after defeating Baylor University to win the 2021 NCAA D1 Tennis Championships at the USTA National Campus in Orlando.

That’s one of the many lessons he learned from his father, a top-55 pro in his prime and the only coach to lead both men’s and women’s teams to NCAA Division 1 championships. Ben won the title-clinching match over Baylor in 2021.

He played No. 4 that season for the Gators. It was probably where he belonged on that loaded team. But even if his play had warranted a promotion, he’d have had a hard time getting it.

Neither father nor son wanted it to appear there was any favoritism at play. So when Ben came into this past season as the No. 1 player, you knew he’d earned it.

Winning the NCAA men’s singles title more than confirmed that. It also intensified the debate about his future. Ben was raised in Gainesville and loved the camaraderie of college tennis.

“I don’t think there’s a bigger Gator out there than Ben,” Bryan said.

Florida sophomore Ben Shelton celebrates his singles win vs. FSU in the 2022 season.

At the same time, he’d conquered the NCAA world. His budding skills need the grind of pro tennis to fully develop.

And a grind it is. A day after beating Ruud, Shelton was dusted 6-0, 6-2 by No. 9 Cameron Norrie from England.

“He’s going to run into some adversity along the way, that’s natural,” Bryan said. “But I also know he’s got the heart of a lion. He’s resilient. He’s going to do extremely well out there.”

That’s why Ben announced last week that instead of returning for the fall semester, he will be reporting to work at his new job. He does plan to pursue a finance degree online. That could come in handy once regular paychecks start coming in.

U.S. tennis fans certainly pleased with Shelton’s career move. He was 11 months old the last time an American won a men’s Grand Slam event. It was Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.

Now a kid who was walking the halls of Buchholz High two years ago is being hailed as the Next Big Thing.

“While you’re confident, you have to be humble,” Ben said. “You can’t get cocky or think you’re too big for any situation.”

He knows there’s no faking it on the ATP Tour. The way things are going, he won’t have to.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.