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

He was really speaking about his choice final yr to signal a significant take care of the small-but-growing Swiss shoe and attire producer On, fairly than pursuing a sure American behemoth with a well-known swoosh. (Extra on that in a bit.) The Floridian was within the early days of a three-month sojourn in Europe that can final so long as he does at Wimbledon, which ends in mid-July.

However Shelton, who is 21, might have been speaking about something to do together with his budding tennis profession, which has been the alternative of cookie-cutter. 

Soccer (the American sort), as well as to tennis, till center faculty? Different.

Common highschool fairly than a tennis academy? Different.

Zero junior Grand Slam appearances? Different.

Main doses of collegiate exuberance: the “Yeah!” after massive and small photographs, the since-retired, hang-up-the-phone exclamation level on his wins? Different. 

And now that the clay swing is right here, Shelton is as soon as extra slicing in opposition to the grain, transferring on to Rome and the Italian Open as he treats a third-round loss in Spain final week as simply one other step in tackling one thing that has beguiled most American males for lengthy whereas. 

That will be that crimson clay.

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The straightforward brutality of Shelton’s tennis, which carried him to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open final yr, can be deceiving.

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

At first look, that offers him the type of stereotypical, massive American recreation that received’t simply translate to the filth. Different notable Yanks with these qualities have mainly held their noses and endured these months of attritional-style tennis, counting the times till the grass and arduous courts of summer time. 

Effectively, that’s not how Shelton rolls.

He spent the 2 weeks main 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 stated. “I just really honed in.”

Somewhat than enduring the comfortable stuff, Shelton is embracing it. That is one thing different American males have historically averted, together with his personal father and coach, Bryan, a touring professional within the Eighties and Nineties. He usually swerved crimson clay apart from the French Open, and the odd different event, for many of his profession.

“I realized too late that my game was pretty well-suited to it,” he stated after a observe session together with his son final week. “I had this big kick-serve. I could push guys back. It opened up the court.” He shook his head, nonetheless irritated together with his youthful self, 30 years on.

His child isn’t letting such assumptions take root. He’s taking a different method. 

Late final yr, Shelton requested Gabriel Echevarria, a veteran coach, to be a part of his crew full-time as a energy and conditioning coach. It was one other off-beat however logical transfer for somebody who is as robust as a lumberjack and might run like a deer however stays susceptible to being wrong-footed or taken off-balance.

Ben Shelton Clay Interview scaled


Shelton wants to transfer on the filth like the most effective of them (Julian Finney/Getty Pictures)

Echevarria, who spent the previous dozen years working for the U.S. Tennis Affiliation and Tennis Australia, is Argentinian. He has a fame for possessing a particular data of what it takes to attain correct motion and steadiness in tennis — particularly on clay, the most typical tennis floor in Argentina.

The excellent candidate to lead a crash course.

The commonest mistake for clay-court newbies, Echevarria stated, is sliding after the shot, which wastes time, fairly than sliding into the shot. Sure photographs require fewer steps, or smaller ones, or an additional 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 form of clay whisperer, who has helped him to perceive 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, earlier than every day of coaching, not in Monte Carlo or Barcelona the place tournaments have been taking place however again house in Florida, Echevarria and Shelton’s father would speak about what motion to deal with. Generally, it was studying how to run diagonally, which occurs usually on clay due to all of the drop photographs and slices. Different instances, it was how to recuperate and shift from one shot to the subsequent.

Then, Shelton would head onto the courtroom to check out what he had simply realized for 2 or three hours. After a break and a few lunch, afternoons consisted of extra time on the courtroom if Bryan felt it was vital, and/or up to 90 minutes within the gymnasium. It was gruelling, and uncovered Shelton to the necessity to attune himself to what he discovered beneath his toes.

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

Ben Shelton Serve Clay scaled


Shelton’s serve permits him to dominate, even on the slower floor (Julian Finney/Getty Pictures)

“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.

That is notably true in Madrid, the place the altitude (2,000ft/650m above sea degree) provides velocity to the flight of the ball, creating the form of situations that left Daniil Medvedev gesturing at his teaching crew with impotent rage, annoyed by being in the correct place on the flawed time, or perhaps the opposite manner round. Rome, softer, slower, at sea degree, carries its personal quirks.

Shelton? He isn’t bothered. He’s considerate, and he’s right 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 stated.

“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 phrases of somebody decided not to repeat their father’s sins, somebody who wants to be a bit different than what a whole lot of the world would possibly anticipate of a participant together with his distinctive model of uncooked energy and athleticism.

It was not so different from the selection he made a bit greater than a yr in the past to roll the cube a bit in that take care of On. 

He had attended faculty on the College of Florida, a quintessential Nike faculty. So lots of the largest figures in American tennis and American sports activities have turn out to be synonymous with the swoosh through 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 big stake in On 5 years in the past, with the corporate constructing and launching a debut tennis attire assortment on the again of his involvement, together with that of Shelton and the ladies’s world No 1 Iga Swiatek.

Right here was Shelton, a dude, a male tennis star no much less, form of, type of, placing Federer a slot behind Serena Williams within the sport’s pecking order, or at the very least placing them on the identical airplane. That doesn’t occur too usually.

Ben Shelton Houston scaled


Shelton on his manner to the title in Houston this yr (Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Pictures)

On an unseasonably chilly Saturday night in Madrid two weeks in the past, Shelton took the courtroom for his opening match in opposition to Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic.

Machac, who is 23, has been tearing by means of a few of the finest gamers on the earth this season. He performs a silky, deceptively highly effective, all-court recreation and, like most central European gamers, largely grew up on clay. 

He might be ranked 35 spots beneath Shelton, who is now world No. 14, however he’s the type of participant who has confirmed to be a nightmare for People on clay virtually ceaselessly.

Shelton promptly tore by means of Machac, 6-0, 6-2. 

He used his energy to push the Czech far behind the baseline, then moved ahead himself, sending volleys and drop photographs into the open courtroom. He took benefit of that little additional time clay provides — “I love time on the ball,” he says — and jumped throughout Machac’s second serve, taking it early, claiming the momentum.

Two days later, Shelton was some extent away from a probable cruise to a straight-set win over Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan. He struggled to deal with a few Bublik’s notoriously relentless drop photographs, scrambling uncomfortably, and that allowed Bublik the crack of sunshine he wanted to climb again into the match. The Kazakh would win in three units, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4.

This was the stay model of the clay tutorial Shelton is searching for from Echevarria. Whatever the defeat, it was a 180-degree turnaround from when he landed in Europe a yr in the past for his first red-clay season. “Last year, I just had no idea what to expect,” he stated.

That’s not his fault. There simply isn’t a whole lot of crimson clay in America, the place gamers largely study the sport on arduous courts.

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Rising up in Florida, Shelton performed some on inexperienced clay, which is more durable to transfer on and produces far much less predictable bounces than the crimson selection. Sloane Stephens, one other Floridian and the 2018 French Open runner-up, calls crimson clay “the real stuff”. Nonetheless, Shelton barely hit a ball on clay after he turned 16 and his focus shifted to faculty tennis, which is a hard-court affair.

His match right this moment, Friday Might 10, in Rome in opposition to Pavel Kotov will be simply his sixteenth skilled contest on clay, and that features 4 wins within the U.S. Clay Courtroom Championships in Houston early final month. He received that event and, whereas any ATP Tour title is nothing to sneeze at, Shelton knew he remained nicely wanting being prepared to contend at Roland Garros. So, the boot camp. The studying. The discomfort, the embrace of one thing not fairly what he anticipated. Being, in a phrase, different.

Some good tennis gamers turn out to be nice by changing into the next high quality model of the participant they have been once they first broke into the tour. Others go from good to nice by opening their thoughts to new expertise.

What’s Shelton? 

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

Ben Shelton On US Open scaled


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

Shelton emerged from that boot camp believing he might thrive on clay, perhaps not right this moment or tomorrow, however finally.

Clay forces him to turn out to be the form of participant he wants to be — a risk on each floor not just because his serve is a game-altering cruise missile, however as a result of he can transfer the ball across the courtroom with spin and top over the online, and are available into the online and volley into an open courtroom and grind when the second 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 additionally doesn’t suppose he has a alternative. Clay season lasts two months. It’s not the four-week dash grass season is. There are just too many rankings factors up for grabs on clay courts for somebody with designs on reaching the highest of the sport to concede something.

People aren’t typically identified for his or her persistence. They like stuff now — instant gratification. Specializing in course of over outcomes doesn’t all the time come naturally. However as soon as extra, Shelton is a bit different in that space, with some nudging from Echevarria and his father.

He’s approaching this clay swing as he did the boot camp, as a possibility to study, to gather info, to analyze how he has improved, to see if he can execute all these step patterns and all that sliding on probably the most well-known crushed crimson brick on the earth. 

If profitable occurs, nice. If not? High quality. Similar to clay requires, Staff Shelton is enjoying a protracted recreation. 

“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.”

(Prime images: L-R: On; Centre: ATP Tour; design: Dan Goldfarb)