The day Ben Shelton went from the hunter to the hunted (and survived)

There’s a cruel joke that tennis plays. 

One year you are the shiny new thing, blasting away at veterans, soaking up the love and the roars of the crowd. The next that shiny new thing is using you for target practice. 

And so it was for Ben Shelton Friday afternoon at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Last year he was the 20-year-old tank-topped terror, generating gasps with that 150 mph serve. Friday he looked across the net and saw a kind of ghost, a big Czech version of himself in Jakub Mensik of the Czech Republic – same height, 6ft 4in, double-wide shoulders, a slingshot arm, and, wait for it, at 18-years old, three years younger than Shelton, and seasoned with some European finesse to go along with his power. 

Mensik may shave occasionally, but not regularly.  

“He’s way better than I was at 18,” Shelton told the crowd after surviving the afternoon in three tight sets, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. “You guys got to see one of the big future stars tonight.”

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Shelton had to withstand pressure (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There are some who might consider Shelton a future star. Even he can forget how new this all really is. He needed to get a passport for the first time just before last year’s Australian Open. He may no longer be raw, but he’s hardly fully cooked, still a fraction of the player he will likely one day be.  

It’s also true that only the most dedicated of tennis wonks had much of an idea who Mensik was a month ago, though he did win five straight matches last August to come through qualifying and reach the third round of the U.S. Open. That was Shelton’s big coming out party though, as he blitzed his way into the semifinals in his last major event of his debut year on the tour. Not bad.

Mensik made it through qualifiers in Australia as well, then won a main draw match and pushed world No 8 Hubert Hurkacz to five sets before losing in the second round. But those performances happened largely under the radar, which is where Czech men have largely existed in the sport for a while now.

Then came the Qatar Open in Doha last month, where Mensik cruised into the final with four wins over big names, including Andrey Rublev, the world No 5, and Andy Murray, a three-time Grand Slam winner who is double his age. He lost in the final to Karen Khachanov, but another piece of the tennis future had seemingly arrived.  

Still, Mensik comes from that rare land where male tennis players exist in the shadow of the women. The Czech Republic is the world’s most successful women’s tennis factory – 10.5 million people, eight women in the top 50, and the reigning Wimbledon champion, Marketa Vondrousova. Not bad. There is just one Czech man in the top 50 – Jiri Lehecka.

That might not last for very long, given the way Mensik joysticked Shelton around the court for more than an hour Friday. 

Shelton does not bring a ton of mystery onto the court. He blasts away at the first ball he thinks he can bang through the baseline, but so many times when he tried, Mensik seemed to have advanced knowledge of where he was going and was right there to bang it back. 

Very quickly, Shelton was the one doing the backpedaling and chasing balls outside the sidelines. Early in the second set, Shelton pelted an overhead into the net. He settled down and kept the set on serve, then had a flurry of big returns to break Mensik’s serve in the eighth game to knot the match at a set apiece.

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Mensik is an impressive talent (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

That’s when Shelton broke out the fist-pumps and his now trademark hand next to the ear to make sure the American crowd reminded the teenager that he was in hostile territory. An NCAA champion at Florida, Shelton is well-schooled in the ways a rowdy crowd can rattle a tennis mind. 

 “Sometimes you go into a hostile environment, and sometimes the hostile environment is behind you,” he said.  “So I enjoy playing in front of big crowds, whether they are with me or against me. 

Plenty of players wrap themselves in bubble-wrap when they aren’t on the tennis court. They will go the gym and do their cardio training, maybe play some golf. But that’s about it. To do anything else is to put a lucrative career at risk.

Not Shelton, a junior football star as a child who likes to pass his free time playing pick-up basketball, though not as intensely as he did when he was hanging out at the rec center at the University of Florida. Still, there were moments of the deciding set between these two very big boys where it felt like if someone had rolled out a basketball hoop and a ball they might have ditched their rackets and settled matters with a game of playground one-on-one. 

Shelton-Mensik was a brand of tennis with elbows flying and drives to the basket where it’s probably a good idea to make sure there’s a mouthguard. And then finally, Shelton proved himself just a little too much, always able to find that big serve when he needed it. 

After it was over, he chatted up a comrade in the locker room and they talked about the comer who is suddenly on the lips of nearly every player in the game, even the young ones like Shelton, Carlos Alcaraz, and Holger Rune, who are suddenly contending with a wave even younger than their own way sooner than they expected. 

 “First time I’ve played someone who’s younger than me and not around my same age,” Shelton said.  “Like, I’ve played Carlos and Holger who are a year, and Arthur Fils, who’s a year and a half. But three years younger, it’s really impressive.”

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Shelton takes a tumble (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Shelton knows what the other side of all this looks like. Roger Federer is a partner in Team8, the boutique sports agency that represents him. Not yet two years into his professional career, he has a awestruck appreciation for the combination of longevity and excellence that Federer and the other greats of his era, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, managed. 

“Crazy,” he described, amazed more each day at how they managed to stay largely healthy and hungry, facing different challenges, including one he, the guy so used to being the young buck, got a little more experience with Friday against someone he may very well be battling for a long while. 

Forget about who is younger and who is older. No matter what, be the hunter, because getting chased by someone big and fearless can be very uncomfortable.  

“You try to flip the script and not have it feel like this guy is coming after me, but no, I’m still coming after him,” he said.  “That’s the mindset I try to have when I play older guys. Like, I’m the underdog or the young guy coming after them. It’s important for me when I play guys younger than me to not feel like they’re coming after me.”

(Top image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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