Still very early in his pro career, Ben Shelton is not letting any teachable moment go unlearned as he continues to make big progress on the ATP Challenger Tour.
Following heartbreaking losses in the Rome (Georgia), Chicago, and Tiburon Challenger finals, Shelton was left looking for answers on why he hadn’t lifted a Challenger trophy yet.
“I got to a point where I felt hopeless on court,” Shelton told Challenger Tour commentator Mike Cation. “Second round of Fairfield and second round of Las Vegas, I felt like I was the one getting attacked. Especially against Earnesto Escobedo [in Las Vegas].
“I’m okay with losing, but if I don’t do everything I can competitively to give myself a chance to win, that really upsets me. Coming out of Las Vegas, I was like, ‘That’s never going to happen again’. I’m not going to go down in the dumps and not give a full fight.”
Shelton was determined to get rid of his championship match struggles and it was only a matter of time before the lefty would be crowned champion.
A close friend offered Shelton some help. Christopher Eubanks, World No. 120 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, had a key conversation with Shelton at the Charlottesville Challenger. Little did the two know that they would meet in Sunday’s championship match.
“It was actually Chris [Eubanks] who told me a couple days before the final, he said, ‘You can’t help yourself with those [negative] thoughts that come into your mind’, Shelton said. “They are going to come, right after the point, you’re going to have a reaction, but how do you flip the script before you start the next point?’ When I was upset this week, I went into the next point bouncing, getting the negative energy out and turning it into a fire in my belly.”
Shelton survived the former Georgia Tech University standout 7-6(4), 7-5 and following the match they didn’t go into the locker room and call it a day. Instead, Eubanks drove Shelton to the airport so he could travel to the Knoxville Challenger.
Christopher Eubanks (left) and Ben Shelton following the Charlottesville Challenger final. Credit: Allen Hoover
“There’s not a guy I would’ve rather played in the final,” Shelton said. “Nobody really understands what Chris has done for me. The support he’s given me is unmatched. He’s a selfless human being and a big brother to me.”
Shelton, who is coached by his father (Bryan, former World No. 55), has been building upon his NCAA singles title in May. The former University of Florida star is already making a sudden impact on the Challenger Tour. Since claiming the college crown, Shelton has reached seven Challenger semi-finals, including this week in Knoxville, and boasts a 28-8 Challenger match record in 2022. In Charlottesville, the 20-year-old dropped just one set en route to the title.
“I went in with a mindset that I was going to out compete everybody,” Shelton said. “I was going to bring more energy than everyone I played. I think that was a really big part of my success this week.”
Tennis fans have been keeping an eye on the rising American star. This summer, Shelton earned his maiden Tour-level win at the ATP 250 event in Atlanta (d. Ramanathan). The following month, Shelton stunned then-World No. 5 Casper Ruud at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati and made his Grand Slam debut at the US Open. And Shelton’s game is only improving.
Ben Shelton at the 2022 Western & Southern Open. Credit: Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour
“One piece [that has improved] is the return,” Shelton said. “If I played the final against Chris [Eubanks] in June, I don’t know how many returns I would’ve put in play. I think my defence has improved. I’m pretty good when I’m on offence but I was looking at some stats early in the summer and I was pretty poor in being able to win points when I got behind in the rally.
“I have a better understanding of how to use my serve and not just go after it hard every single time but mix it around, hitting some slow sliders from time to time.”
Shelton, who started the year as No. 573 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, is now at a career-high 128. The American hopes to use his newfound mindset to continue imposing his will on opponents.
“It starts with the mentality of what you do in between the points,” Shelton said. “I’m not dwelling on every single point whether I win or lose. If I make a bad error, I can laugh it off… I’m just taking everything that I can get right now, enjoying everything that I have and not stressing too much.”