Florida tops Baylor, wins first NCAA men's title on Ben Shelton clincher
Florida freshman Ben Shelton, son of head coach Bryan Shelton, delivered the Gators their first-ever NCAA men's title with the clinching point in Saturday's NCAA championship match against Baylor. The 4-1 win also made coach Shelton the first to lead both a men's and a women's Division I tennis program to national titles, after lifting the trophy with the Georgia Tech women in 2007.
Competing in the nightcap for the third straight evening in Orlando, Fla., the Gators' midnight victory electrified a partisan crowd that made the USTA National Campus feel like "The Swamp" in nearby Gainesville for much of the week.
“[This title] means the world to me," said senior and No. 1 singles player Duarte Vale, who helped lead Florida to the national semifinals two years ago. "I was telling coach that I don't even know how to act, you know?
"To me, it couldn't feel more special because—not even because, of course, it's a national title, a huge thing—but to do it with the people that we did it with, I mean, there's no words."
The champions did not drop a singles point in any of their six NCAA tournament matches, and they once again relied on that strength to defeat the Bears in this matchup of the nation's top two teams. Sitting at No. 2 in the ITA rankings but seeded first, the Gators turned a 1-0 deficit after doubles into a commanding 3-1 lead when Andy Andrade (No. 3 singles), Sam Riffice (No. 2) and Josh Goodger (No. 6) wrapped up straight-sets wins within minutes of each other.
"I had a big smile on my face after we lost the doubles point," said coach Shelton, "knowing that this is going to be fun, that it's going to be a battle now. Now we've got to win four of these six [singles matches], but we've got the guys to do it.”
The other three Gators all dropped their opening sets, but by the time their victorious teammates got off the court, each had battled back. Duarte Vale was midway through a tight second set on Court 1, while Blaise Bicknell and Shelton had already sent their matches to a decider on 4 and 5.
It was Shelton who was in pole position to finish the job, and after he saved two break points to hold for 5-2, the Gators' storybook ending felt inevitable. The youngster made sure there would be no late plot twist by powering through the finish line with a break at love, as he closed out the match by winning the last six points and the final three games.
"Whenever I'm out there and I'm looking down the courts... it makes it so easy to just battle, knowing that every single guy out there is battling so hard," Shelton said after the match. "Just knowing that they don't they don't need my point, and I can just play freely and know that everyone else on the team is going to come through. It's a really good feeling to be out there with them.”
Following the match, the freshman was named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player in recognition of his eight match wins—four in singles and four in doubles.
“We’ve got a very, very special team," added coach Shelton. "For [Ben] to be a major part of that... It's really, really cool to see him shine on the biggest stage, under the lights tonight here at the USTA National Campus. Just really, really proud of him. Proud of our guys.”
While Shelton was the clincher in the final, he was the first Gator off the court in Friday's semifinal against Texas, after which is father shared this: “It's pretty neat being the father and coach, you know. I wear both of those hats with him. But the dad is certainly proud, and just proud that he's part of this thing. He's part of this team, he respects the other players, he respects the game, he loves the game. And to see him out there enjoying himself and expressing his talent, his God-given talent, as a dad, that makes me feel really good.
"As a coach, I have to go back and look at the video," he added with a laugh. "I'm sure there's one or two things that I could probably pick apart."
The Gators finish their historic season at 26-2, and have the possibility of returning their entire starting singles lineup next season.
Men's All-Tournament Team
No. 1 Singles: Adam Walton, Tennessee
No. 2 Singles: Sam Riffice, Florida
No. 3 Singles: Andy Andrade, Florida
No. 4 Singles: Blaise Bicknell, Florida
No. 5 Singles: Ben Shelton, Florida (Most Outstanding Player)
No. 6 Singles: Josh Goodger, Florida
No. 1 Doubles: Adam Walton/Pat Harper, Tennessee
No. 2 Doubles: Sam Riffice/Ben Shelton, Florida
No. 3 Doubles: Charlie Broom/Finn Bass, Baylor