Florida coach Bryan Shelton gets back to basics after historic NCAA title
Florida coach Bryan Shelton made history in May by winning the 2021 NCAA men’s title with the Gators. Coupled with his 2007 title with the Georgia Tech women, Shelton is the only head coach to win an NCAA Divison I title with both genders.
With the bulk of that 2021 championship lineup back in Gainesville—including senior captains Sam Riffice and Duarte Vale—you could forgive the Gator faithful for dreaming of back-to-back crowns. But nothing’s changed for Shelton, whose laser focus on incremental improvement set the tone for the new season.
“That’s our theme for this team: every day, let's push to get better,” he explained. “When you have that mindset, you kind of leave yesterday and last month—and last year and the championship—you leave that behind and you get focused in on what you’ve got to do today to get better.
“It’s very clear to our guys that we're not living on last year's glory.”
The Gators’ primary goal is to win a third straight SEC regular-season title, with their gauntlet of a conference schedule beginning in March. Florida opened the spring season with two Top 5 matches, dropping a 4-3 decision to TCU before bouncing back with a win over Texas by the same score two days later.
“It’s never a bad thing,” he said of the early loss, “to kind of get your attention and understand that we’ve got a long season in front of us and we’ve got to continue to get better each match.”
The Gators followed that up with a 6-0 sweep of No. 14 UCF before beating Princeton and Florida State during ITA Kick-off Weekend. Shelton likes scheduling elite opposition early in the season; the high-profile matchups help his players stay motivated during the December break when many are not on campus. The team also benefits from experiencing high-pressure situations in front of energetic crowds early in the schedule.
That was certainly the case on Saturday at College MatchDay, where the Gators defeated the Seminoles for the second time in a week. The match marked Florida’s return to the USTA National Campus in Orlando, the site of their 2021 NCAA triumph and a place that has become a home away from home for the team.
“It's College MatchDay, something special, something that every team wants to be a part of,” Shelton said, speaking with USTA.com ahead of the showpiece event. “These are memories that our guys will take with them for the rest of their lives.
“It creates just a great buzz for our guys, for the programs to be showcased… The USTA does a fantastic job of making it special for our guys.”
The last time the Gators played at the Campus, Shelton’s son Ben clinched the title with his win at No. 5 singles and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Ben was again in action on Saturday, notching a straight-set win at second singles—but a third Shelton was also in the mix.
On the opposite side of the stands at the Collegiate Center, Shelton’s daughter Emma competed for the undefeated Florida women in their own victory over FSU. The junior transfer from South Carolina, who's in her first year with the Gators, scored a doubles win and led her unfinished singles match at the No. 5 line.
As for Ben, he’s featured at the No. 2 and 3 spots this season as he continues to improve his explosive game. Following his MOP performance at the NCAAs, Shelton reached the final of the USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships in August. That earned him a wild card into the US Open Qualifying Tournament, where he beat former ATP Top 100 pro Michael Mmoh in two tiebreak sets.
“He’s one of the hungriest players I’ve ever worked with,” coach Shelton said of his son, “and I’ve had a lot of great ones through the years. He comes to work every day with an energy and enthusiasm for it.”
Ben wasn’t the only Gator to compete at the 2021 US Open. Riffice, by virtue of his NCAA singles title, earned a wild card into the New York main draw. In three tight sets, including one tiebreak, he lost to 15th seed and former US Open semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov.
To the surprise of many, including his coach, Riffice turned down the $75,000 in US Open prize money to maintain his NCAA eligibility and return to Florida for his senior season.
“I certainly was one of those people that thought he was ready to turn pro,” Shelton said. “Sam, in his head, said ‘No way. I’m coming back.’”
Riffice is now on track to finish his degree in four years, and has plans to go to law school following his tennis career. He’s already taken the LSAT—on a Saturday morning in between the team’s opening matches this season.
Vale, now a fifth-year senior, also returned after playing pro events in the fall.
“This is something that they'll have for the rest of their lives,” Shelton said of their decisions to return. “When you look back, what’s, six months, what’s four months, compared to being able to do something this special with a group of your friends and buddies and coaches and mentors?”
Riffice, Vale and Shelton have anchored the top of the Gators lineup so far this season, but as demonstrated by some of the results from the 2022 Australian Open, lineup positions can be overrated.
Danielle Collins, who reached the AO women’s singles final and cracked the WTA’s Top 10 for the first time, was not in the Florida starting lineup for much of her freshman season. She would go on to transfer to Virginia, where she won two NCAA singles titles prior to her professional career.
Former UCLA Bruin Maxime Cressy, who also struggled to crack his team’s lineup early in his college career, reached the Melbourne fourth round and gave world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev all he could handle in a four-set loss. He’s now on the cusp of the ATP’s Top 50.
And former Gator Anna Danilina, who also started at the bottom of the order, reached the women’s doubles final.
“They have really helped us coaches to not have to worry so much about our lineup,” Shelton said with a laugh. “We can use those stories and say, ‘Does it really matter what number you play?’
“It's not just about what number you're playing. It's are you getting better? Are you working on the right things? Are you doing the right things to continue to improve? And if you are, you can do great things. You can build your confidence, which is really the most important piece for any athlete, is their confidence. You win at No. 5 enough times, you start to believe. And it doesn't really matter if you're winning at five or you're winning at two. Your confidence will grow with each win.”
At the pro level, Shelton pointed to young stars Jenson Brooksby and Carlos Alcaraz as further examples of that principle. The way things are trending, we’re likely to see some Gators join them soon on the ATP Tour. But like their coach, those young Florida men won't be looking too far ahead as they stay focused on the daily grind.