Florida tennis positioned to fight for yet another national title

Florida men’s tennis comes after its first national title in the program’s history and has provided ample evidence this season that it could become the next team to repeat itself.

The last collegiate tennis team to achieve back-to-back championships was Virginia, who were champions for three consecutive years between 2015-17.

The Gators opened the season at the top of the rankings, but a loss in their first match against the then No. 5 TCU quickly dethroned the king of the hill. It was the first time Florida had ever lost its opening game of the season.

Since then, however, the Gators have had significant success, and their only other loss of the season came against Texas during the ITA Indoor Championships. Florida is currently running high on a 12-game winning streak that has encapsulated the entire SEC game and is now just three games away from completing a perfect SEC season.

UF has been in tug of war lately with TCU for the No. 1 spot, but recently regained the top spot. With a game against the Horned Frogs under his belt, the Gators are now hopefully well equipped to get another shot at them and other top teams during the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Nate Bonetto said the team will continue the same daily operation that got them to the top last season.

“We’re not trying to focus too much on winning and losing,” Bonetto said. “I think more for us, it’s about being a process-oriented team, focusing on the process and trying to get better every day.”

A key aspect of Florida’s success has been dominance in doubles. The team’s top pair, senior Sam Riffice and sophomore Ben Shelton opened the year unranked and struggled through the early part of the season.

The duo broke through their obstacles and have won the last six out of seven matches and have risen to No. 11 in recent doubles.

Senior Andy Andrade and graduate student Mattias Siimar have distinguished themselves by compiling a record of 15-3 and placed as No. 27 on the rankings.

The Gators have been just as good at singles games with six ranked players, including the No. 1 in the nation: Shelton.

The Gainesville native has built up his strong freshman season with an excellent 15-2 record this season, facing a number of the best players in the country. Although Riffice manned the pitch one early in the season, Shelton have been 9-0 since the takeover and have shown no signs of slowing down.

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Riffice enjoyed the change just as much as he has risen to No. 26 on the rankings by getting 9-0 in his time on lane two. Last year’s ITA singles champion is 13-4 on the season.

It has not only been a two-man battle for the Gators, as they claim one of the nation’s deepest lineups.

Nr. 93 Andrade has matched Riffice’s 13-4 record while breaking and improving the program record for most singles victories ever (127). Nr. 98 Duarte Vale, No. 120 Josh Goodger and No. 121 Siimar round out Florida’s lineup with winning records across the board.

In addition, a recent development has been the outbreak of Bonetto. The No. 16 recruiter in the 2021 class has emerged as a clutch player for the Gators, and has made the most of his seven singles appearances with a record of 6-1.

As one of just two newcomers on the team, Bonetto attributes much of his early success to being able to learn from the veterans around him.

“We have a lot of beautiful old guys on this team and it’s great to learn from them and experience being around them,” Bonetto said.

The Bend, Oregon, natives provide an extra body to support the Gators’ six-man lineup. The extra man allows Siimar to shift his focus to doubles, but also gives head coach Bryan Shelton plenty of opportunities to advance while the team competes for another national title.

Bonetto believes this is one of the team’s biggest advantages.

“Having as many good guys as we have on this team definitely gives you a level of comfort when playing matches because you know all 10 guys are completely capable of winning matches,” Bonetto said. “It’s also super motivating because you look around and see nine other guys who are great tennis players. It makes every guy come out and bring it every day because they know they have to.”

A challenge that the Gators certainly will not overlook will be the upcoming SEC tournament on the 20th-24th. April.

Despite winning the regular SEC crown last year, it was Tennessee that won the SEC tournament. The Gators want to fill that gap in their trophy case this year.

Florida has only three games left in 2022 before it gets the chance to do just that.

Contact Joshua Morgan at jmorgan2@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @ JoshuaMorgan37

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