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Ben Shelton is the unexpected star of the Australian Open

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The unexpected star of the Australian Open is a 20-year-old tennis player who had never been outside of the U.S. before this tournament. Ben Shelton has played his way into the quarterfinals. And Ben Rothenberg, senior editor of Racquet Magazine, is one of many who have been riveted by his performance. Thanks for joining us.

BEN ROTHENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So Ben Shelton has a tennis pedigree. Tell us about who he is.

ROTHENBERG: Yeah. Ben Shelton is someone who has been on the radar of American tennis close watchers for a couple years now. He is the two-time NCAA singles champion on the men's side, playing for the University of Florida. And his father, Bryan Shelton, was a tour-level player in the ATP tour in the 1990s, primarily. And so he's come up pretty quickly through the professional ranks after having a very successful amateur career at the college level. Shelton has really made some very big strides very quickly, especially on his first trip abroad here. He's made it all the way to the quarterfinals of this first grand slam of the year. It's really been pretty remarkable and getting a lot of questions from people.

SHAPIRO: Like, who is this guy?

ROTHENBERG: Relatively understandably, yeah.

SHAPIRO: So describe the way he plays. He's left-handed.

ROTHENBERG: Yeah, he's left-handed, which is relatively rare in tennis, as in most other walks of life. And he is a big, strong guy. He's 6'4". He's got a big serve. He's got a lot of power. He really controls play out there. And he's a very imposing figure on the court and wins a lot of free points with his serve. The lefty serve comes at a different angle than the righty serve that most players are most accustomed to. So that's a big advantage for him, too. And also, right now I think he's really benefiting at this tournament from an element of surprise. There is not a great scouting report on Ben Shelton at this point on tour because most players haven't seen him play. So they haven't played against him at this point. So he's really catching a lot of players off guard, which will be decreasingly the case, obviously, as his career goes forward.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell whether this is a fluke? Do you think we're going to be talking about him five years from now?

ROTHENBERG: I do think we'll be talking about him five years from now. I do think that this is ahead of schedule in a meaningful way. And I do think that Ben got a fairly favorable draw with how he landed in the section of the Australian Open bracket and some of the other results that happened in that section. So I think it's ahead of schedule for him to be doing this deep a run without having to beat some of the game's biggest names so far. But at the same time, I think the upside for him and the stealing for him was always considered very high. And actually, I did a prediction thing for this season where I was ranking who would finish tops of - among the American men sort of in order. And I had Shelton up at No. 3 for this season. Like, I did really expect him to make a pretty seismic, you know, leap up the rankings but not necessarily by the end of January.

SHAPIRO: You are claiming credit for having called this even if everybody else is taken by surprise.

ROTHENBERG: Somewhat, yes.

SHAPIRO: People have declared the death of American men's tennis many times over. Do you think this is going to put that talk to rest?

ROTHENBERG: I think to really declare that moratorium over, it's going to take another grand slam champion. That's the main drop people care about. It's coming up on 20 years now since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, which stands as the last men's singles title at a grand slam for an American man. And so I think that's really the threshold that American sports fans more casually will care about in terms of declaring American men's tennis as fully resurrected to its previous heights. But this is certainly a great start. And Shelton is absolutely a great candidate for someone who can end that drought.

SHAPIRO: Is this tournament ultimately still Novak Djokovic's to lose?

ROTHENBERG: It does seem that way, yes, for sure. Now, Djokovic has won the Austrian Open nine times, and he's been in pretty imposing form so far, especially in his last round, playing against an Australian player who was a bit critical of him during last year's whole vaccination deportation saga. That seemed to really be a clear stop on Djokovic's revenge tour. He won 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in his most dominant performance in a long time. And so Djokovic seems to be the guy to beat. He has had a lingering hamstring injury, which people are keeping an eye on, but it clearly didn't seem to be holding him back much in that last match.

SHAPIRO: Ben Rothenberg hosts the tennis podcast "No Challenges Remaining." Thanks a lot.

ROTHENBERG: For sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.