Near-Perfect Shelton, Team World Off to Flying Start at Rogers Arena
The future of tennis was very much on display at Rogers Arena on Friday afternoon, as two of the sport’s most dynamic young stars kicked off Day 1 action at the 2023 Laver Cup: 19-year-old Frenchman Arthur Fils vs. 20-year-old American Ben Shelton.
It was fitting that this match should be staged on a converted ice rink, home to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Team World’s Shelton and Team Europe’s Fils would exchange slapshot groundstrokes from start to finish in a physical one-hour, 18-minute match that seemed to feature everything but a good cross-check.
With tournament co-founder and 20-time major singles titlist Roger Federer looking on from courtside, it was the 19th-ranked Shelton who would claim the youth-on-youth showdown, 7-6(4), 6-1, giving the red-jacketed defending champions some early momentum and a 1-0 advantage.
It marked the first time in the six-year history of the competition that Team World had taken the first point.
“The crowd really got me going,” said Shelton, the son of former ATP pro Bryan Shelton, who has served as his coach both in the collegiate and professional ranks. “I really wanted to set the tone for Team World today.”
“It was pretty special,” said Team World Vice-Captain Patrick McEnroe. “He’s sort of built for this type of environment. He feeds off the team. I think the team really feeds off him. He gives you a lot of energy when he’s out there. As someone who is part of the team, you respond to that as well.”
Neither player flinched through the first four games of the match, each refusing to surrender a single point on serve. Shelton would drop just seven from the service stripe in the stanza, yet still had to dig himself out of a 1-4 hole in the tiebreak, reeling of six unanswered points.
“When somebody comes out of the gate serving the way Arthur was, it puts a lot of pressure on you to match it with him serving first,” said Shelton. “So I felt that pressure from the start. I felt pretty good about the way that I responded. Each game when he came up with a great service game or some good points, I feel like I shot right back at him.”
“He always responded with aces,” said Fils. “At 5-4, deuce, in the first set, I thought maybe he was going to struggle a little bit and be tight. No, ace, ace. He was playing great. It’s a big serve.”
Brimming with confidence after becoming the youngest American man to reach US Open semifinals since Michael Chang in 1992, Shelton broke the 44th-ranked Fils for 3-1 in the second set to pull ahead for good.
The 2022 NCAA singles titlist at the University of Florida, Shelton would finish with seven aces to a single double fault. He never faced a break point.
Shelton gave credit to the guidance of another lefthander, Team World Captain John McEnroe.
“It’s just amazing, the few pieces of advice that I picked up from him the last few days,” he said. “It’s been great to be around him.”
Shelton says he hadn’t necessarily felt on-form during practices this week in Vancouver. But all that changed on Friday morning during a hitting session with teammate and countryman Tommy Paul. Said Shelton, “I felt like everything was perfect.”