Ben Shelton part of growing crop of U.S. men

Mike Frey-USA TODAY Sports

MELBOURNE, Australia– To get an idea of just how new the whole international pro tennis thing is to Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old NCAA champion from the University of Florida about to make his Australian Open debut, consider this: He says he is using a passport for the first time.

There’s more that is unfamiliar to him. The Gainesville-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Sydney-Adelaide itinerary of airplane rides late last month that brought Shelton on his initial trip outside of the United States as he played tune-up events before the first Grand Slam tournament of 2023. Going through customs. Trying different food. Riding in cars on the left side of the road.

And that’s to say nothing of the on-court learning curve, which Shelton will continue to navigate when he plays his first-round match at Melbourne Park against Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old from China also never previously in the main draw there.

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” Shelton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “These are all a lot of experiences that I haven’t had yet. But I’m glad to be out here.”

It’s been said over and over and over again: No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. Shelton is part of a group of players hoping to end that drought at some point, and while it still might take some time, breakthrough performances in 2022 by Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima helped show countrymen what could be possible.

Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland, made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, the first man from the U.S. to get that far at Flushing Meadows since Roddick in 2006. Fritz, a 25-year-old from California, climbed into the top 10 and won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Rafael Nadal. Nakashima, a 21-year-old from California, won the Next Gen ATP Finals.

“It definitely gives us a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement. It’s cool to see those guys do amazing things. It’s something to look up to for me, for sure,” said Shelton, prone to flashing a wide smile while he speaks. “American tennis is definitely on the way up.”

A total of 13 Americans are in the ATP’s top 100, with Shelton checking in at a career-best No. 92 after turning pro last year.

“He’s a feisty competitor,” said Chris Eubanks, a 26-year-old from Georgia and friend of Shelton’s. “When things aren’t going well, he is still so confident and focused on deciding to just make it go well. It’s very rare. You’re going to hear some yelling. You’re going to hear `Vamos!’ You’re going to see fist pumps. Doesn’t matter what the score is.”

Shelton’s father, Bryan, a former pro who taught Ben the game and coaches at Florida, described it as “a football mentality” that derives from time dabbling in that sport, along with basketball and soccer, as a youngster. It wasn’t until Ben turned 11 that he zeroed in on tennis – because he wanted to travel to junior tournaments and stay in hotels like his sister, Emma, who now competes for Florida.

There are a tournament-high 14 U.S. players in the men’s bracket at the Australian Open, and the 17 in the women’s bracket also leads all countries. (Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin won major trophies in women’s singles for the United States over the past two decades.)

“The American men in their 20s, there’s a lot of guys that are having success and steadily climbing up the rankings. They push each other,” said Michael Russell, a former player who coaches Fritz. “Obviously I’m biased; I want Taylor to do the best, of course. But hopefully we’ll have an American man as a Grand Slam champion again soon.”

Shelton, who left Florida after his sophomore season and is taking online classes toward a degree in business, is OK with taking things one step at a time.

He is more interested in process-related goals than anything tied to rankings or results – even if he did soar 471 during 2022, which included a victory over French Open and U.S. Open runner-up Casper Ruud and three consecutive titles on the lower-level Challenger Tour.

“He’s had a lot of success, but there’s so much room for improvement,” Bryan Shelton said about his son. “He recognizes that.”

There weren’t as many surprises on the court for Ben as there were off it during his initial taste of life on tour.

“The way players take care of all the things – their body, how they eat, the way they warm up, the work they do in the gym each day,” Shelton said, “I’d say that was the interesting part for me. Seeing how much it takes to be at the level that these guys are at.”

At French Open, Francisco Cerundolo is mad at chair umpire over Holger Rune’s double-bounce

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

PARIS – Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina was devastated about losing his French Open fourth-round match to Holger Rune of Denmark in a fifth-set tiebreaker Monday. He also was mad at chair umpire Kader Nouni for missing a double-bounce of the ball on a point that was awarded to Rune early in his 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7) victory.

They were tied at a set apiece and on serve at 2-1 for the No. 6-seeded Rune early in the third at Court Suzanne Lenglen when the point of contention happened. Cerundolo, who was serving at deuce, hit a forehand that skidded low at the baseline and quickly bounced a second time – which normally would have meant that the point was his.

But Rune went ahead and got his racket on the ball, sending it back over the net. At about the same time, No. 23 seed Cerundolo was saying “sorry” to apologize for the odd way his forehand made the ball skim across the clay. Nouni was not immediately aware of the double-bounce, thought the ball was still in play and called Cerundolo for hindrance for talking during a point. That meant Rune got the point, and when he won the next one, too, he had a service break.

“It was unbelievable, because it was a clear double-bounce. I was mad at the umpire because he has to see it,” Cerundolo said. “It’s his fault.”

In tennis, electronic line-calling is used at many tournaments to make line calls, but replays are not used to check things like double-bounces or whether a point should be lost because a player touches the net, which is not allowed.

And while Cerundolo put the onus on the official, he also thought Rune could have ceded the point because of the double-bounce.

“For sure, I wish he would have done that, because it was a big moment,” Cerundolo said.

Rune, who moved into a matchup against No. 4 Casper Ruud in the quarterfinals, said he saw a replay after the following point, and “saw it was a double bounce. But the point already happened, and he called the score. So I felt sorry.”

But, Rune added: “This is tennis. This is sports. Some umpires, they make mistakes. Some for me; some for him. That’s life.”

Gael Monfils withdraws from French Open with wrist injury

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

PARIS — A thrilling five-set victory took a toll on Gael Monfils, whose withdrawal from the French Open handed No. 6 Holger Rune a walkover to the third round.

The 36-year-old Frenchman said he has a strained left wrist and can’t continue.

He battled Sebastian Baez for nearly four hours on Court Philippe Chatrier before beating the Argentine 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 in a first-round match that ended at 12:18 a.m. local time.

The victory was Monfils’ first at tour level this year, as the veteran was coming back from heel surgery.

“Actually, physically, I’m quite fine. But I had the problem with my wrist that I cannot solve,” he said. “The doctor say was not good to play with that type of injury. Yesterday was actually very risky, and then today definitely say I should stop.”

Monfils reached the semifinals at the French Open in 2008 and made it to the quarterfinals on three other occasions.