GAINESVILLE – Watching the youthful yet familiar figure on his computer screen, Florida tennis star Ben Shelton already knows what is coming.
The coach’s son still can’t fight his training or instincts.
The player Shelton views on YouTube is father Bryan succumbing in the final stages of a crushing round of 16 Wimbledon loss to Christian Bergstrom.
“I watched that a few times, like, ‘Close it out!'” Ben exclaimed.
Bryan laughs, sitting alongside his son, though the memory of that deciding, 10-8 fifth set likely stings the Gators’ 56-year-old head coach even 28 years later.
Footage is rare of Bryan Shelton’s professional career, which included two wins, more than $ 1 million in earnings and a ranking as high as No. 55 on the ATP Tour.
Ben Shelton has consumed the catalog.
“Whenever we see a player break through the top 100, we’re like, they’ve made it,” he said. “Having the chance to play at that level is crazy impressive. I wish I could have seen more tapes or watched more of him. “
The 19-year-old’s rise in the sport serves as a reminder.
Ben Shelton’s passion and competitiveness are innate while his technical and strategic prowess are learned. Those qualities bestowed by his father, along with his 6-foot-3 son’s considerable athleticism, form the foundation of the nation’s second-ranked singles player and sophomore leader of the reigning national champions.
The Sheltons will be front and center as the No. 2 Gators (23-2) begin defense of their 2021 crown Friday evening in Gainesville against New Orleans during a four-team regional, also including Miami and South Florida.
But Florida’s success is more than a family affair. Sam Riffice of Orlando is the defending national singles champion, among the four Gators ranked in the top 125 and Ben’s partner of the nation’s fifth-ranked doubles team.
“We are really focusing on making ourselves as unbreakable as possible and becoming a tight-knit group,” Ben said. “We trust each other and have a mentality going in our matches that we don’t have to win our match. We can just go out and play and we know that the pressure isn’t all on our shoulders because the guy next to us is going to get the job done if we don’t.
“That’s one of our biggest assets.”
Bryan Shelton’s vision of a championship program came into focus after he retired and went on to coach the women’s team at Georgia Tech, his alma mater and eventually the 2007 national champions.
Ben Shelton, then a young child, barely noticed.
Football instead grabbed his attention as future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson’s legendary career was concluding with the Yellow Jackets.
“We were going to every game. I had a Calvin Johnson jersey, ”Ben recalled. “He was my favorite. That was the first sport that I really fell in love with. “
Ben went on to become the starting quarterback with the Boys & Girls Club team in Atlanta, and later Gainesville after father became the men’s coach in 2012.
Older sister Emma Shelton, now a junior with the Gators, was the tennis prodigy in the family.
“That was my sister’s thing,” Ben recalled. “That was my dad’s thing and they could do that together – and I was going to be this football player.”
Family ties and a dose of sibling rivalry ultimately changed his opinion.
“I started to get a little jealous that my sister got to go to these cool places on the weekends and play tennis tournaments and get to practice with my dad every day,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe I want to try that out, too.'”
Growing pains were inevitable, but Ben’s linebacker mentality caught his father’s eye.
“He loved to compete,” recalled the elder Shelton. “He was a little bit emotional with it because he just didn’t want to lose. We put them in small tournaments pretty early on because he didn’t want to drill all day and not play.
“Being around other kids and competing, that was his thing.”
Intangibles were enough to separate Ben early on.
“That’s one of those things in the tennis world that stands out: There’s a lot of kids that want to perfect their tennis, but don’t love the competition,” Bryan said. “They get scared of it. Here’s this guy who wants to put it on the line every time. I saw that and thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty special.’ “
Refining his technique and embracing strategy would follow.
“I didn’t fall in love with getting the fundamentals right,” said Ben Shelton. “I was sloppy with my footwork. I was lazy. That was one of the things that I didn’t respect enough… and that I’ve probably improved the most. “
Along the way, Shelton developed into a top junior player drawing attention coast to coast. Even a visit to storied Stanford, a 16-time national champion, did not convince him to leave home or his father’s side.
“He can get me back in the right state of mind quicker than anyone can,” Ben said.
Bryan Shelton became an All-American and ACC singles and doubles champion at Georgia Tech because of talent and the mind of an industrial engineering major.
“My dad has a great mind for tennis… seeing the angles and the geometry of the court,” Ben said.
Yet, his father at times struggles to calculate how to juggle coaching his son and Gators teammates.
“You want everyone to do well, and these guys really do become your sons as well,” Bryan said. You know that they’re looking and they’re watching and other people are watching – you want to send the right message. Most of the time to wait, pause and then act. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I come down on him or I’m a little too firm and that can become a distraction for the rest of the team.
“I’ve even had one of our captains say, ‘I’d like to see you coach me as hard as you coach Ben.’ It’s made me think, ‘Am I not coaching everybody hard?’ “
The results speak for themselves.
The Gators are positioned to become the second SEC program (Georgia) to win back-to-back national titles, with the Sheltons leading the way.
“I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else other than for this guy,” Ben said.
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at gosgators.