For 10 years, only a select few in Gainesville knew the secret.
Scott Perelman felt like he rode Secretariat. Bobbie Mehan thought his serves would fly over the fence.
In the last 10 days, the secret has been released and looked upon in awe by the nation.
That mystery? The talent of Ben Shelton.
The Gainesville native and UF tennis alumnus has shocked the tennis and sports community with a semifinal run at the US Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York.
The 20-year-old, in his first full year on the ATP Tour, defeated Americans Tommy Paul and Francis Tiafoe in the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals respectively to advance. His serve at 149 mph against Paul dazzled fans around the world.
“That serve gave me goosebumps and left me speechless,” Perelman said. “I’ve never seen that before in my life, and unless he’s doing it again, I don’t think I’ll ever see it again in my lifetime. I’m just tickled to death for him and Bryan.”
Before Shelton battles 23-time Grand Slam and tennis legend Novak Djokovic Friday, we spoke to Perelman, a volunteer assistant coach for the Florida Men’s Tennis team, and Mehan, his former coach at Buchholz High School, about his journey to this point.
Six things to know about Shelton: Ben Shelton was a tennis star in Gainesville. Now he’s facing Novak Djokovic at US Open
“Benny was the difference maker”
Shelton, who began to play in Gainesville at age 11 initially hated tennis. Perelman speculates this only happened because Ben saw his father and former UF Men’s Tennis coach, Bryan, training with his older sister, Emma, and got jealous.
As fans have seen during his matches, Bryan is stoic and calm. Ben never chose to act in that same way.
“He was always quite flamboyant in the way he dressed. It was always multiple colors,” Perelman said. “Benny is an extrovert. Benny never had problems on the big stage.”
Eventually, Shelton was winning junior tournaments in Florida in his early-to-mid teens but work still needed to be done.
“You did not look at Ben Shelton through juniors and think this guy is going to be top 20 in the world,” he said.
Perelman credits Shelton’s work ethic to bring him to this point.
“The fact he was Gainesville born and bred, it happened all in front of my eyes, so I’ve had as good of a view as anyone,” Perelman said. “Like Frank Sinatra used to say, they did it ‘their way.”’
As a sophomore at Buchholz in 2019, he won the state title over Cypress Bay’s Luis Iriarte Bastidas.
“We all knew when he was a young guy in high school that he was different than the rest of the athletes,” Mehan said.
Mehan added most players of his caliber skip high school tennis all together, but not only did Ben play, he cheered for his teammates as hard as anyone.
“These kids that hadn’t played tennis very much, he’d be the biggest cheerleader out there,” she said.
Perelman and Mehan both believed Shelton would commit to UF to play with his dad, and what did Shelton do in his first year with the orange and blue?
Clinch Florida’s first ever national championship.
“I think he would tell you one of his greatest joys was winning that national team championship,” Perelman said. “The fact that he clinched it, and he’s Bryan’s son.”
The Gators 2021 squad was star-studded. All six singles players went on to become ATP-ranked, but Perelman thinks Shelton’s arrival was the x-factor.
“Benny was the difference maker,” he said. “We all knew he was going to be special. It’s just hard to believe it happened this quickly.”
Shelton followed that up with a NCAA individual title in 2022 over San Diego’s Austin Holmgren. He left the program after the season to complete his degree online and focus on pro tennis full-time. A year later, he took Bryan along with him as he retired as head coach in June to coach Ben full-time.
“A lot of kids are going to start playing tennis because of Ben Shelton”
Shelton’s emergence and the way he carries himself will likely to grow tennis nationwide, and especially in Gainesville.
“Every person in Gainesville is talking about it,” Mehan said. “People that, one time saw him play or played with him at a clinic are now reminiscing.”
Mehan, who was at the US Open during the early rounds last week, saw Shelton signing autographs for every kid in sight.
“I think it is important to him to treat the kids to where they get excited about tennis,” Mehan said. “A lot of kids are going to start playing tennis because of Ben Shelton.”
Perelman thinks if Shelton continues this play, he can become the best tennis player to come out of UF and increase the popularity of college tennis nationwide due to the victories at Florida.
The 68-year-old has coached some excellent players, but he proclaimed he’s never seen anything like Shelton.
“This is not chopped meat, this is the best players in the world, and how he manages to work his way through the draw is pretty darn special,” Perelman said. “Is he doing what Alcaraz or Djokovic is doing? No, not yet, but you keep watching. It’s right around the corner.”
Noah Ram covers Gainesville-area high school sports and University of Florida athletics for The Gainesville Sun. Contact him at Nram@gannett.com and follow him @Noah_ram1 on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Former coaches react to Ben Shelton’s US Open run