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Kings of the court: Florida men’s tennis breaks through for first national title

A special night for the Gators culminated with a father and son claiming a championship and sharing a hug.

@GatorsMTN / Florida Gators

Roads to royalty in human history have long traced the paths of bloodlines. Florida’s trek to its first national championship in men’s tennis, it turns out, was no different: When the last stroke was played last night, two of the men most integral to the title embraced in a hug that represented more than the bond between coach and player.

Like, you know, father and son.

Gators freshman Ben Shelton stormed back from a first-set loss in his No. 5 singles match against Baylor’s Charlie Broom for a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory to clinch Florida’s first national championship in program history, taking the program his father Bryan has helmed since 2012 to a mountaintop long glimpsed but never quite summitted.

Florida’s national title comes on the heels of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances that fell short of a national final appearance, the last three of which saw the Gators make the quarterfinals, round of 16, and finally the semifinals in 2019.

That most recent trip — the 2020 NCAA Tournament being canceled due to COVID-19 — culminated with a 4-2 loss to Texas despite the meeting taking place in Orlando, at the gleaming USTA National Campus. And this one could have derailed at the same stage, with Florida once again meeting Texas in the Final Four on Friday.

But the Gators scored a doubles point win — rare for them against stiff competition this season — and would go on to get sweep revenge for their 2019 defeat and a grinding 4-3 loss to the Longhorns in Austin in February that produced their only loss of the 2021 regular season. Florida’s 4-0 triumph over Texas featured three straight-sets singles wins, with Shelton’s 6-3, 6-0 blitzing of Chih Chi Huang avenging the first singles loss of his collegiate career.

And with a quarterfinal win over Texas A&M that came after a thumping in the doubles matches already in their memories by Saturday, Baylor taking the doubles point to open a match that started more than two hours later than scheduled did little to shake the Gators.

Florida, which didn’t lose a singles match in NCAA Tournament play, got three two-set wins in a span of about 10 minutes as the clock ticked past midnight. With junior Sam Riffice polishing off a 7-5, 6-3 win, senior Andy Andrade finishing a bagel second set after winning a 7-6 (8-6) war for the first, and senior Josh Goodger preserving his unbeaten singles record on the season with a pair of late breaks to secure a 6-3, 7-5, the Gators needed just one more win from Shelton, No. 1 stalwart Duarte Vale, or No. 4 player Blaise Bicknell, also undefeated on the year in singles play.

But while Vale was scrapping with Baylor’s Adrian Boitan after conceding a large lead in the first set and Bicknell was forcing a third set with Nick Stachowiak, Shelton was turning on the afterburners.

With a big serve and a handful of cannonball forehands, he overwhelmed Broom, notably rallying to stay on serve in the third set’s stirring sixth game, before ultimately winning on a ground stroke sent long — and sending his own racket soaring over a fence.

For Florida, a national title in men’s tennis gives its well-rounded athletics program — the one that spurred this blog to dub Florida the “Everything School” — its 42nd national title in its 14th distinct varsity sport, and adds to staggering recent runs of excellence.

While Florida had some significant athletics success prior to the 1989 hiring of Steve Spurrier and the 1992 elevation of Jeremy Foley to athletics director, those two personnel moves helped presage the golden era of Gators sports. Spurrier’s Gators delivered Florida’s first national title in a so-called “Big Three” sport — football, men’s basketball, and baseball — in 1996, and Foley’s legion of head coaching hires began returning national championships on his investments in 1998, when a nascent Florida women’s soccer program broke up a dynastic run by North Carolina behind Foley hire Becky Burleigh and future legend Abby Wambach.

Since 1996, Florida has won its first NCAA national title in a stunning eight distinct sports — including all of those “Big Three” sports, marking it as the only program to win titles in all three within the last half-century — and repeatedly breaking through in sports long dominated by small cadres of dynastic programs.

Since just 2006, when Florida kicked off an unprecedented and unequalled run of football and men’s basketball success with titles in both in the same academic year — followed on the gridiron by a second in three years and on the hardwood by the only consecutive Division I titles in the sport this century — the Gators have rolled up 24 national titles, with 19 of those coming since just 2010, and building a streak of consecutive academic years with at least one national title that was likely only halted in 2020 by COVID-19.

The win is also the elder Shelton’s second national title, following one won with the women’s team at Georgia Tech in 2007, making him the only coach to ever win national titles with teams of both genders in collegiate tennis.

And Shelton is just the latest Foley hire to win it all, bringing the number of national championship coaches hired by Florida’s AD emeritus to 10 — and their haul of titles to a staggering 26.

But this win and this night belonged primarily to these Gators, ones who persevered through a long road to contention and the sideswiping of their 2020 season by a pandemic.

When Shelton arrived at Florida, the men’s tennis program had fallen from heights reached around the turn of the century — Final Four appearances in 2000 and 2005, the latter under two-time SEC Coach of the Year Andy Jackson — to a mid-pack SEC program, and hadn’t won an SEC title since 2003.

But Shelton amped up the Gators’ recruiting and married it to a program that has developed prospects into polished players. Five Gators on this year’s squad began their collegiate careers no earlier than 2017 — and, in double specialist and redshirt senior Johannes Ingildsen’s case, 2016 — including Vale, Andrade, and Goodger.

Those three and junior Sam Riffice all played singles matches in a 4-3 loss to Texas A&M that would become the last of Florida’s 2020 campaign — one that the Gators appropriately avenged in Lake Nona this week with a quarterfinals win.

The 2020-21 team also had to make up for the departure of Oliver Crawford, who captained the 2019-20 team, earned ITA All-American honors as a singles and doubles player, and spent two years as Florida’s No. 1 singles frontliner before making the call to go pro last summer with college sports facing an uncertain future.

The move’s worked out for both parties — Crawford has won as recently as last month as a pro on the entry-level ITF Tour, and was still following his Gators closely as they won it all — but also reflects just how difficult continuity and continued excellence have been to achieve in college sports over the last two seasons.

Bryan Shelton has built a program that has the depth to survive the loss of a player as talented as Crawford and the chemistry and character to thrive without him. And while his next team won’t be as deep or talented, with all those seniors now set to depart with plans to reunite and get rings, he need look no further than his own son to see that there will still be excellent players in his program.

On Saturday night, the Gators took their place as kings of the court in collegiate tennis.

But this reign was a long time coming — and the program now has royal blood.