Tennis pro Ben Shelton is on his way to icon status

OPINION: Ben Shelton's charisma and power serve are just two things that make him a lovable star on the rise.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 03: Ben Shelton of the United States reacts during his match against Tommy Paul of the United States during their Men's Singles Fourth Round match on Day Seven of the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 03, 2023 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Ben Shelton, one of the most fun players to watch on the tour, is the blazing hot new fireball of Black American tennis. On Sunday, the 20-year-old, who has been a pro for just over a year, won a 4th round singles match that ended around 3 p.m. By 6 p.m., he was back on the court, winning a mixed doubles match with his partner Taylor Townsend, another trailblazing Black player. Right now, the tennis world is enthralled with Shelton, and I bet he’ll become one of the most beloved players in the game over the next year or so for a few reasons.

First off, Shelton is charismatic with puppy dog energy you can’t help but love. He seems young at heart, and he’s quick to smile on the court, which makes him seem like a big kid. He was born in Georgia, the son of two great tennis players, including a father who played on the tour and is now the head coach at the University of Florida.

At the same time, he’s a power player like few we’ve ever seen. Shelton can rip the cover off of the ball. At times, he hits it so hard it looks like he’s used a video game power up to make it fly faster. Shelton uses his 6-foot-4 frame and long limbs to generate huge swings that make the ball absolutely fly. Shelton’s serve is one of the most breath-taking shots in the game as well as one of his most dangerous weapons

When I watch Shelton serve, I sometimes think, what if Gumby was Black and athletic? Shelton has a sort of Gumbyesque fluidity and plasticity. When he serves, his shoulder hyperextends as he tosses the ball, his hips twists as he bends low then explodes upward to crush the ball. On Sunday, he repeatedly served over 140 mph, including two aces that clocked in at 149 mph. These are heart-stopping numbers. The majority of elite tennis men can serve around 125 mph. Big servers typically hit 130 mph. To see a 135 mph serve is rare. Shelton serves faster than that regularly. The sound of him making contact is like a thunderbolt crack, the ball bolting from his racket like lightning. It’s enthralling to watch him serve that fast. 

In Shelton’s second match of the day, he and Townsend played mixed doubles and they couldn’t stop smiling as they ran around the court chasing victory. You could tell that they enjoy each other and that they’d made a pact to have fun while playing. Meanwhile, anytime they absolutely needed a point, Shelton destroyed a serve or crushed a forehand. And that was that. 

Suppose you’re wondering whether two matches in one day is a lot for a pro. Not really. It’s normal for many of them to play doubles after singles. But on the day that Shelton qualified for the quarterfinals in singles, maybe in the back of his parents’ mind there was a little worry. God forbid something were to happen in the mixed doubles match that would impact his main goal of winning his singles match. Shelton’s parents were there in the front row for both of his matches, and late in his mixed doubles match, he ran to retrieve a shot and then performatively limped back to his chair as if he had injured his calf. It was a little prank to make his parents’ hearts leap. Funny that Shelton is out there teasing his parents like that and trying to work their nerves. But that’s what kids are supposed to do.

Up next for Shelton in the quarterfinals is one of the most compelling matchups of the tournament: a showdown with his friend Frances Tiafoe.

Black American tennis is doing very well in the post-Serena era. A year after the Queen walked away, we have a beloved superstar in Coco Gauff, a rising star in Chris Eubanks, the veteran Madison Keys, and more. But the alpha man of Black American tennis remains Tiafoe, who last year beat Rafael Nadal on his way to the U.S. Open semifinals. Tiafoe is a tough, strong, gritty competitor who’s very tough to beat. He’s currently ranked #10 in the world for men’s singles. Tiafoe will have no fear of Shelton’s power. But Shelton will have no pressure on his shoulders. It should be an epic battle. The hot young upstart versus the established star. The kid from a tennis family against the child of immigrants who got it out of the mud. The huge server against the grinder. It should be one of the most exciting matches of the tournament. It should also be evidence that there will be no shortage of Black tennis in the future. Stay tuned… 


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show Star Stories with Toure which you can find at He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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