Road to Orlando: Florida men among NCAA title favorites
In the buildup to the 2021 NCAA Division I Tennis Championships, set to be held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, from May 16-28, USTA.com will feature some of the nation's top teams in this "Road to Orlando" series. First up are the University of Florida men.
The Florida Gators will enter the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships with a 20-2 record, as the SEC regular season champions. But despite a stellar season, coach Bryan Shelton’s squad will head into the tournament seeking redemption after a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in the SEC tournament final against Tennessee on Friday.
In an instant classic, Florida fought back from a 3-0 deficit to level the match at 3-all, then fell just short when senior Andy Andrade could not complete his comeback on the No. 3 singles court at the neutral-site University of Arkansas.
The last time the Gators lost a match was Jan. 23, in another 4-3 thriller, this time against Texas at ITA National Indoors. After swallowing that bitter pill, they trained hard during nearly three full weeks off and entered the SEC season with a chip on their shoulders, running off a perfect 12-0 conference record and a 17-match win streak that ended at the hands of the Volunteers.
“We were all so fired up for the conference season,” explained junior captain Sam Riffice, who is majoring in political science with a focus in international relations. “We’re lucky to be in such a good conference and be able to play so many top teams… and we all look forward to those matches the most.”
Now, the team looks forward to the NCAA Championships, and they’ll hope to follow a similar script after their second defeat. The Gators have two full weeks to reset and practice ahead of the NCAA regional round, set to begin May 7.
While they likely will not enter the tourney as the nation’s No. 1 team—a position they’ve held since late March—Florida will certainly be among the favorites, especially with a home-court advantage of sorts at the USTA National Campus, just a two-hour drive south from Gainesville. To add to the home cooking, six of the seven Americans on the Florida roster call the Sunshine State home, including singles starters Riffice (Orlando), Andrade (Bradenton), undefeated sophomore Blaise Bicknell (Miami) and coach Shelton’s freshman son, Ben Shelton (Gainesville).
After dropping as low as No. 11 in the ITA rankings earlier this season, UF has owned the top spot both there and in the Tennis Channel/USTA Top 25 poll in each of the last four weeks. It was the opposite of what transpired during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when the team started the year at No. 1 and then dropped after an early loss to defending champions Texas—who won their first NCAA title at the Campus in 2019.
In early March, a home weekend sweep of Georgia (then the ITA’s No. 14-ranked team) and Tennessee (then No. 3) served notice of the team’s potential.
“That was a big statement weekend for us,” said Riffice, who was named a team captain as a freshman during the 2018-19 season. “I think that kind of started our big run, playing some of our best tennis.
“To come out and win a lot of tough matches in some tough environments and being able to earn the number one spot, it was huge for us.”
The upperclassman will bring a 23-7 singles record into the NCAA tournament, with that mark compiled almost exclusively at the No. 2 spot, behind Duarte Vale (Portugal). Riffice will be especially comfortable at the Campus in May—the Sacramento, California, native lives in Orlando when not at school, and his mother, Lori, is a coach with USTA Player Development.
“I love playing there. It really feels like I’m playing at home,” he said. “When we’ve played there before, we had a ton of fans come out. It’s almost like playing in The Swamp.”
In January, Riffice completed a preseason training block at the Campus alongside several American pros who were preparing for the Australian Open, including former UCLA star Mackenzie McDonald, former Tennessee standout Tennys Sandgren, Bjorn Fratangelo and Michael Mmoh.
“I’m so lucky to get to train with those guys,” said Riffice, who’s particularly inspired by McDonald and Sandgren, and their rise from the NCAA ranks to the near ATP’s Top 50. “Just seeing how hard they work, it was a really cool experience.”
At the 2019 NCAA Championships, Riffice reached the individual singles quarterfinals while the Gators fell to Texas in the team semifinals at the Campus. Both personally (in singles play) and at the team level, Riffice is 0-3 against Texas in his UF career. With the 2020 NCAA Championships cancelled due to COVID-19, the Longhorns will enter this year’s tournament as defending champs, after winning a share of the Big 12 regular season title. (The Big 12 tournament begins Saturday.)
For Florida to go all the way in their home state, there’s a good chance they’ll have to go through at least one of Texas or Tennessee to do it.
But more than redemption against those top teams, history is also on the line for the Gators. The school is seeking its first men’s NCAA tennis title, and the trophy would double as the first men’s NCAA tennis title for any school in the state of Florida.
For more on the NCAA Championships, visit the USTA National Campus website.
VIDEO: Blaise Bicknell sends the Gators to the SEC final.