ATLANTA – The phrase “the future of American men’s tennis” often inspires groans these days, as 74 major tournaments have come and gone since Andy Roddick lifted the US Open in 2003.
Always the burden From this drought falls on the young Americans who rose rapidly in the world rankings, began to make an impact on the ATP Tour and then crashed into the Grand Slam wall that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have built over the past two decades.
So let’s not bore Ben Shelton, who is only 19, with that kind of albatross. But we can say this: The rookie University of Florida, who won the NCAA singles title in May, is very, very good. And he’s on the brink of a summer that defines his career that might put him on hold On a completely different path than the one that seemed set for him just a few weeks ago.
Shelton, whose father Bryan was a former Top 100 player and is now the head coach in Florida, played his first ATP match on Tuesday, at the Atlanta Open. He won it in a very straightforward manner, defeating veteran pro Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 7-5 and letting out a huge shriek as he swerved off match point.
“It’s really special,” said Shelton, who was a few blocks from his childhood playgrounds at Georgia Institute of Technology, where his father coached until 2012.
But with every tournament he plays, the bigger story is that Chilton himself may be special, and his performance could force some decisions about his future much faster than expected.
As of now, Chilton is scheduled to return to Florida in the fall. But after performing well in several events at Challenger level and impressively winning his first round here, he is on a fast track to the top 200 in the world rankings. Longtime ESPN professional player, coach, and analyst Brad Gilbert wrote on Twitter that Chilton would be “a top 50 for sure.” The US Open has already given him a wildcard in the main draw, which will be guaranteed with $75,000 in first prize money – if he turns pro.
“This will definitely be a talk later in the summer with my parents and my team and we will make a decision based on where I develop and what is best for me not only on the field but off the field as well,” Shelton said. “
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There’s a lot, of course, that could get Shelton back in college. It’s a comfortable place for him, he wants to complete his financial degree, and playing with his father in one of the most successful teams in the country is definitely important.
But as he’s going through that process this summer, it certainly seems possible that Shelton and those around him will conclude he’s better off going back to school.
“I’m just a college student here having fun,” he said. “I don’t put a lot of pressure on my matches. I’m focused and want to do my best, but it’s not do or die here.”
Chilton will get to know his position better on Thursday when he faces 25th seed John Isner, who has won the Atlanta event six times. After going 11-4 against the pros ranked mostly in the 150-300 range, this will be Chilton’s first chance to see how he stacks up against a top 100 player.
But no matter how it plays out against Isner—and certainly a huge step in the class for someone who isn’t yet a pro—it’s Shelton’s explosive 6-foot-3 game that attracts as much attention as the results.
With his big left serve averaging 126 mph against Ramanathan and the ability to get a solid kick on his first and second serve, Chilton already has a legitimate weapon that can win matches. But he also seems pretty strong from both of his ground strokes and he’s very comfortable getting into the net to finish points behind both his power and chips. Chilton won 15 of 22 points when he entered for an overhead or overhead shot.
“I love hitting the net, being able to use some of my hand skills, my athletic skills, and going up to get the ball (to keep the overhead away) is one of my favorite things,” Shelton said. “I could have done a better job today by combining my serve and my shot and getting into the net faster on points, but I think that’s a big part of my game and a big part of my development.”
Only the hardest of hardcore tennis fans would have seen Chilton on Tuesday afternoon in Atlanta, but it was easy to see why he was such a dominant college player, going 37-5 in singles last season. It was also a huge announcement for other tournaments this summer and fall to offer wildcard entry, as did Atlanta. Every championship wants to brag that they helped launch a great career.
It’s too early to think that Tuesday’s match was the debut for the next great American champion, but at least it looks like Chilton is ready for an interesting and successful professional career. Chilton may have a few things that bring him back to college for another year, but if he continues to play like he’s had the past several weeks, it will be hard to turn down the opportunities he’s creating for himself now.
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