Last year, when Ben Shelton decided to leave college and turn professional, he wondered aloud to his father, Bryan, a former player on the men’s tennis tour, if they ought to embark on a venture together.
Sorry, Bryan Shelton told his son, he already had a full-time job coaching at the University of Florida. Bryan Shelton handed the reins to Dean Goldfine, a highly respected coach who had previously worked with the former world No. 1 Andy Roddick. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was better this way, giving the 57-year-old father and his 20-year-old son a healthy distance for his first couple years as a professional.
Then Ben became the breakout star of this year’s Australian Open, riding his booming serve into the singles quarterfinals, while Bryan was back home in Gainesville, Fla., readying the Gators for the spring season. It turns out even well-adjusted, middle-aged dads can be susceptible to FOMO. In early June, shortly after Florida’s men’s team was eliminated from the N.C.A.A. Division I tennis tournament, the Sheltons announced that Ben had a new/old full-time coach.
“It was the right time,” Bryan Shelton said.
On June 12, father and son set out for the grass-court season and the next phase of their relationship, which has a big-stage debut this week at Wimbledon, where Shelton, who has been billed as a star in the making, is scheduled to play Taro Daniel in the first round Tuesday.
“We knew eventually this is what we wanted to happen,” Ben Shelton said Saturday at the All England Club.
Parent-child relationships can be fraught. Mix in coaching, which is not uncommon in tennis, especially when a parent is a former professional, and they can quickly turn “toxic and tough,” in the words of Bryan Shelton.
Stefanos Tsitsipas yelling during matches at his box, with his coach and father, Apostolos, sometimes yelling back, can make spectators feel like uncomfortable guests at an awkward family dinner. Then again, things seem to be working out all right for Casper Ruud, who has made (but lost) three of the past five Grand Slam finals under the tutelage of his father, Cristian. Like Bryan Shelton, Cristian Ruud was a decent pro on the ATP Tour.
Looking for the Ruuds between tournaments or on off days? Try the nicest nearby golf course, where they compete like college buddies. Still, after his loss last month to Novak Djokovic in the French Open final, Casper Ruud, 24, said he would not rule out one day getting guidance from someone other than his father.
“It can always be good with new, fresh eyes on your game,” he said.
For Ben Shelton, there are benefits both on and off the court in having his father around, he said. Given his strapping frame and 12-month rise from Florida Gator ranked outside the top 400 to Grand Slam quarterfinalist, it can be easy to forget just how young and raw he is in tennis years and life experiences.
A late bloomer, Ben did not play most of the major junior tournaments growing up. He attended a regular high school rather than a tennis-focused academy. His journey to Australia for the Open and its lead-up tournaments was his first trip overseas.
This year’s clay-court swing was his first trip to Europe. On Saturday, he confessed to feeling homesick while traveling without his parents earlier this year.
Not only has he never played Wimbledon before, but until the middle of last month, he had never set foot on a grass court. He won one of his three matches on grass the past few weeks, though both losses needed a deciding third set.
Expectations for Ben’s Wimbledon debut are high, and arriving alongside his dad, who has coached him before and has won his own matches at the All England Club, may bolster his chances.
The young player’s pounding serve, walloping forehand and his ability to move forward on the court make grass an ideal surface for him if he can figure out how to stay low and master the quick, controlled foot movements that winning on grass requires.
The first two days were rough, Ben said Saturday.
“My legs were feeling weird,” he said. “And then after those two days, I started having a lot of fun.”
Bryan Shelton said he has always told his son that Wimbledon is the game’s most special venue, a place where he had dreamed of playing as a teenager in Alabama watching the famous matches between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe on television. In 1989, he walked onto a field court to play Boris Becker, who was already a two-time Wimbledon champion at 22, two years younger than Bryan Shelton. Becker beat him in three sets.
“Someone pulled up a video on an iPad and handed it to me so we could watch it,” Bryan Shelton said. “Better than I thought it would be.”
He made the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1994, his best performance at a Grand Slam tournament, beating the second seed, Michael Stich of Germany, in his opening match.
Bryan Shelton said for the past six months he and his wife, Lisa, had been discussing him leaving his college job to work full-time with Ben, but first he needed to make sure Ben still wanted him. He did.
During Ben’s early teenage years, father and son would practice before Ben headed off to school, hitting the courts at 6:45 a.m. each morning. Through that experience and during Ben’s college career, Bryan learned a lesson that nearly all parents learn about their children: Despite all that shared DNA, they are not mini-me’s.
Bryan loved to drill on the tennis court, honing shots through hours of practice. Drills bore Ben. Competition drives him. He needs to play more points in practice.
Bryan said as a junior player there were times when Ben would come home from losing in a tournament and Bryan would ask his son what had gone wrong.
This was before Ben had grown to 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds. He would tell his father he just needed to get bigger.
Bryan didn’t necessarily like that answer. He would tell his son that there were always things he could get better at, that he should make a list of the elements of his game he needed to improve, the way Bryan had after some of his losses. But that wasn’t how Ben ticked.
“I was getting in his way,” Bryan Shelton said. “What I learned that I need to do is let him think about how good he is and know that he will do the work.”
Like any coach and player, they have had their moments on the court. There are times when Ben needs to let off steam, and Bryan needs him to be composed. An hour later, someone will apologize, and they move on. They share an understanding that people make mistakes, and they try to maintain their “no grudges” rule.
Ben said his father has become good at picking up on the signals that it’s time to switch from coach mode into dad mode. Bryan will set a time limit on a video session, so they aren’t constantly watching and talking about tennis. So far, he’s been happy to let Ben head to dinner with friends while he stays back in his hotel room, orders in and watches golf.
“He’s pretty easy to travel with,” Ben said of his father.
Good thing. They will be doing a lot of it.
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