Oliver Crawford, Florida
Arthur Kapetanakis | November 27, 2018
Oliver Crawford has wheels on the tennis court, but if you spot him on the University of Florida campus, he might be traveling on another set of wheels – the ones on his moped.
“If you don’t have a moped on campus, it’s kind of strange,” he said.
Despite his intense training schedule and an extensive travel itinerary that takes him around the country to compete, the 19-year-old sophomore from Spartanburg, S.C., fits right in on the Gainesville lawns. He enjoys a good social life, attending Saturday football games (head coach Bryan Shelton schedules Saturday practice early so that his players can go) and finding plenty of time to hang out with his roommates, teammates and friends.
His days begin early, with three individual training sessions per week and two morning runs on the days in between. ADVERTISEMENT Weekday practices are in the afternoons, often followed by weight-lifting, leaving evenings free to study and relax.
“It’s busy, but not as busy as it might sound,” he said of his tennis-focused schedule. “We’ve mapped it out very well, so I have some free time and down time to study and relax.”
To facilitate frequent travel – either to various ITF tournaments in the fall or to road matches across the country in the spring – Crawford takes the bulk of his college classes online, a convenient format that allows him to log in anytime each week to access the latest lesson, assignments, readings and lectures. He credits the school’s academic advisers and tutors, as well as teachers, who work with his complicated calendar.
“Everyone works very hard to keep me up to date and keep all the guys up to date,” he said.
Having graduated from Laurel Springs, an online high school based in California, Crawford is accustomed to online schooling and the burden it places on the student to stay on track throughout each semester. If managed properly, it is a route that provides a tremendous amount of flexibility. Many of Crawford’s tennis friends at other schools wish they had the online options that he does at the University of Florida. This semester, he is taking only one in-person class, and he plans to move to a fully online schedule for the spring.
For all the perks that the school offers Crawford, the main reason he committed to the Gators – he verbally committed before even setting foot on campus – was the coaching staff. He saw attending the school as his best opportunity to get better.
“I was definitely going to college,” he said. “I knew my tennis wasn’t there [to go pro], and I’d rather improve and get all the resources at the university and expand my game.”
At the recommendation of his junior coach, Kelly Jones – who is now in his eighth year as the men’s head coach at Furman University – Crawford connected with the Gators' coaching staff and immediately felt that it was the right fit. Shelton, the Florida head coach, had played with Jones on the ATP Tour, while Florida assistant coach Tanner Stump was Jones’ assistant at Furman in 2014.
“When I got the job at Florida, one of the first calls I made was to Kelly,” said Stump.
The assistant coach traveled with Crawford to Harlingen, Texas, in October and guided the sophomore to his first professional title at the $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit Futures event. After taking some tough defeats over the summer, Crawford’s game has matured, according to Stump, who described him as an aggressive all-court player.
“He just has a better understanding of what it takes at the next level, especially in his own service games, to be successful,” he said, also crediting Crawford’s evolution from a forehand-dominant player to one that can wound opponents off both wings and at the net.
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The Harlingen title was not his only trophy this fall, and the accolades keep coming; he was recently named to Team USA's Master'U team (set to compete in France, Nov. 30-Dec. 1) as a result of his recent surge. In late September, Crawford won the UVA Masters, a collegiate tournament hosted by the University of Virginia, defeating teammate Johannes Ingildsen in the final.
That result earned him a qualifying wild card into the $80,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger event in Charlottesville, Va., in late October. He fell there in three sets to Wake Forest senior and ITA No. 1 Petros Chrysochos, the 2018 NCAA singles champion. The Cypriot would go on to win three more matches, including an upset of main-draw No. 4 seed Lloyd Harris, on his way to the last 16.
Both Crawford and Chrysochos are among the growing list of collegiate success stories, currently headed by ATP Top-10 players and 2018 Wimbledon semifinal opponents John Isner and Kevin Anderson. It is a testament to the value of college tennis in the physical, tactical and mental development of young players. In Crawford’s Harlingen title run, he faced a gauntlet of former collegians in Andrew Watson (Memphis), Jordi Arconada (Texas A&M), Maxime Cressy (UCLA senior), Ronnie Schneider (North Carolina) and Jonathan Chang (Rice).
The Florida phenom, in addition to his work on the Gainesville campus, has also put time in at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, where he trained with USTA Player Development’s Men’s National Coach Nicolas Todero after his freshman season concluded last spring. Over the course of three days, Todero, in communication with Shelton, worked with Crawford on fundamentals and movement.
“The best thing about Oliver is his accountability during practice and his engagement,” said Todero, who works with top junior, college and professional players. “He’s a workhorse, and it’s a pleasure to work with a player with those qualities.”
During his freshman year at Florida, those qualities helped him earn All-SEC first-team honors, as well as recognition as the SEC Freshman of the Year and the Gators’ team MVP. His 27-8 singles record (across both dual and tournament matches) included a 4-0 mark at the top spot and a perfect 10-0 at No. 3, to go with a 26-7 record in doubles.
Crawford began the season in the No. 4 hole in the singles lineup but worked his way up to the top of the order in time for the NCAA tournament, where Florida lost in the quarterfinals to No. 5 Texas A&M, 4-3.
As for the 2019 season, apart from yearly goals of winning an SEC and NCAA title, the Florida coaching staff is excited about Crawford’s continued development and will be looking for him to lead the team at the top of the lineup.
“We want Oliver to continue to prove himself as one of the best college players in the country,” Stump said. “He had a good start on that last year, but there’s still plenty of work to be done, and he wants to be that guy that can be dominating. You see a few of those guys every year that come out and just take the landscape by storm.”
Crawford’s ultimate individual goal in tennis is to earn his way onto the ATP Tour, but for the moment, he is fully committed to team success at Florida. He has not yet breached the topic of turning professional with the coaching staff.
“I trust these coaches here, that when they think I’m ready to play [professionally], I’m ready to play,” he said. “That’ll be a conversation we have when it’s time. These coaches have my best interest at heart before anything. If they think that I’m ready to go, and I am, then I’ll go.”
“I like [Florida] as my base, for sure. I think this will always be kind of a base for me. I love Gainesville. I’m not looking to leave anytime soon. I love it here, and I still feel like I am finding ways to improve with these coaches and players, and I don’t think there’s any reason to stop that anytime soon.”
Crawford has already rubbed shoulders with some of the game's top professionals, including hitting sessions with Rafael Nadal, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock, set up through the USTA. He also competed at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open during a junior career that saw him crack the Top 10 in the ITF World Junior Rankings.
His Twitter profile picture shows him standing next to Nadal, drenched in sweat after a practice at the US Open. Like Nadal, Crawford is hard-working and humble – two traits that bode well for his chances of following in the Spaniard’s footsteps. Channeling his inner Rafa, he had this to say of his future in tennis:
“I can’t control where I end up, but I can control how hard I work and what I do.”
(Photo Credit: Tim Casey/UAA Communications)