Shelton Wins First Clay Title, Second Family Trophy at River Oaks

By Hanlon Walsh

American Ben Shelton experienced a lot of “firsts” this week at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. Men’s Clay Court Championships. His first appearance at River Oaks; His first ATP semi-final on clay; his first ATP final on clay; and his first career ATP clay court title. But he was the second title winner in his family. 

Following in the footsteps of his father and coach Bryan, who himself was a 1992 River Oaks champion, Shelton defeated fellow American friend and “foe”, Frances Tiafoe, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 on Sunday afternoon’s final without an empty stadium seat in sight. In doing so, the No. 1 seed distanced his career head-to-head with Tiafoe 2-0 and perhaps made an even bigger statement as the 21-year-old party crasher to the older trio of 26-year-old U.S. stars in Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul who been at the helm of American tennis this decade.

“That whole group of older Americans - Frances, Tommy, Taylor and Reilly (Opelka) - has had so much success at a young age and created a blueprint for me and other younger American players to follow,” said Shelton in his post-match press conference. “They are all talented guys with a lot of intangibles that have set the foundation for the recent uptick we’ve seen in American tennis. I’m excited to be a part of this movement and follow their lead”

A Shelton Family Affair

When Shelton served out the match and clinched championship point, the crowd and cameras turned to him and simultaneously to the elder Shelton looking on proudly at his son. It’s not often in tennis when family members, much less father and son, get to share a piece of history together. It was a surreal moment that was felt throughout the stadium.

“My dad won this tournament in 1992 and he’s always had that title as a ‘one-up’ on me, so I had to get even with him by winning the title today,” Shelton said in his championship ceremony speech. “Dad, thanks for being a trailblazer and showing me the way. I appreciate all of my family who made difficult journeys to come here and support me this week.”

Shelton’s time in Houston this week has been a family affair in more ways than one. He thanked many extended family members - uncles, aunts, cousins - who live in Texas and traveled to support him this week. Lori McNeil, former WTA great and mixed doubles partner to Bryan Shelton, has also served as a family-like extension to the Sheltons this week, offering guidance and positive energy to Shelton in his player box alongside her former mixed doubles partner.

McNeil, a Houston resident and teaching professional at River Oaks, was a former top 10 player in her prime who won 10 singles titles and 33 doubles titles. After sharing the court with Ben’s father during her playing career in the 1980s and 1990s, it was only fitting for her to play a small role in witnessing a debut clay court title milestone in Shelton’s young career. 

The Houston family connection also extended beyond the tennis court for Shelton. As many top players do who compete at River Oaks, Shelton stayed with a local club member and family in who he thanked for their hospitality in his semifinal post-match speech. Ironically, they also hosted Reilly Opelka in 2022, the same year he won the title at River Oaks as well.

“I’ve had a lot of support here from my family in the stands and also the family I’m staying with in Houston - the Hammers. They hosted Reilly for this tournament a few years ago and he went on to win the title. I’m happy to make it 2-for-2 for them and keep the good luck charm going.”

Patience is a Virtue

The 6-foot-4 big-serving Shelton, whose explosive game rings loudest on the faster grass and hard court surfaces, isn’t exactly a typical prototype for clay court tennis success. His powerful lefty forehand and towering serve lend itself to aggressive, abbreviated points. But clay court tennis is far from aggressive or abbreviated.

After a disappointing freshman clay season on tour in 2023 where he went 2-7 on the dirt, Shelton has taken those tough losses in stride and turned them into learning moments as he kicks off his sophomore clay court season. While he admittedly doesn’t consider himself a patient person on or off the court, Shelton is learning to apply the timeless “patience is a virtue” mantra as a strategy to fine tune his clay court game.

“The clay is really starting to grow on me,” Shelton added. “Clay is all about movement and patience. I have a high-bouncing serve, heavy forehand, and like to think I’m pretty athletic. I come forward to finish points at net quite a bit and you need those finishing net skills in clay because it’s tougher to win points from the baseline. Though I’m less experienced in terms of matches, I feel my game is well-suited for clay because I like having more time with the ball sitting up higher. It just takes time to develop.”

What The Title Means for Shelton

Shelton’s win at River Oaks marked his second ATP career title and first title on clay. In Monday’s new ATP rankings, Shelton will rise to a career high of No. 14 - surpassing Paul to become the 2nd highest ranked American behind No. 13 Fritz. 

As the highest ranked American player under the age of 25, his win represents the younger generation of “Next-Gen” American talent slowly encroaching on the current generation, with Shelton leading the charge in full force.

Although different generations, Shelton and Tiafoe inked their place into American tennis record books together following their blockbuster singles final on Sunday. The occasion marked the first all-American singles final competed between two Black Americans in Open Era history. In his championship speech, Shelton acknowledged the role that Tiafoe has played in paving the way in representation for the sport. 

“Frances has been a huge inspiration to kids and people of color in our sport. He is such a selfless guy who is always thinking about the next generation. He does so much great work behind the scenes that he probably should be getting more credit for. Foe, thanks for everything you do for our sport, and especially people who look like you and me.”

Beyond its racial and historic significance, the all-American final inked its place into other ATP and River Oaks record books as well. It marked the third ATP event of 2024 to have already featured two U.S. players, coming on the heels of Dallas (Paul d. Marcos Giron) and Delray Beach (Fritz d. Paul). 

In River Oaks history, Shelton and Tiafoe join a long list of American predecessors including  John Isner, Reilly Opelka, Steve Johson, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and many others as the 10th all-American final contested here in the Open Era. Shelton is now the seventh American to win the trophy at River Oaks over the last 10 editions of the event. 

With his first clay title in the rear view mirror, Shelton leaves Houston with an additional pep in his step and clay court springboard for the long and grueling European swing ahed. Over the next few weeks, he’ll spend a focused training block in Orlando to optimize his movement and preparation for the European clay. 

He plans to compete in a trio of warmup events in Madrid, Rome, and Geneva before playing in his second Roland Garros - the culmination of the clay season. As a newly minted top 15 player with a clay court title under his belt, Shelton is backing himself to do much bigger things on the red dirt in 2024.

“I’m looking forward to going home to Gainesville and then spending the next few weeks on the red clay in Orlando to hone in on a lot of the clay court skills that I’ll need to be successful in Europe. Last year I went over there for the first time and felt like a deer in the headlights during my first clay season. This year, I feel much more confident and know I have what it takes to compete with the top guys in our sport on any surface.”


Necessary cookies

These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be disabled. They are used, for example, to maintain the contents of the user's shopping cart. You can set your browser to block these cookies, but then the website will not function properly.

always active

Analytical cookies

These cookies allow us to count visits and traffic sources. Thanks to these files, it is known which pages are more popular and how website visitors move. All information collected by these cookies is anonymous.