Freshman Oliver Crawford wiped the sweat from his forehead and took a deep breath before his serve. The crowd chanted, coaches shouted orders and teammates clamored with words of encouragement.
But then, as Crawford prepared his serve, silence. Pure concentration from everyone in the Ring Tennis Complex as the last serve of the match-clinching third set was put in play.
As the ball hit the net on the return, giving Crawford the winning point, the silence turned to jubilation. Crawford threw off his hat, dropped his racket and jumped into head coach Bryan Shelton’s arms while his teammates rushed over to congratulate him.
With the help of not just Crawford, but the entire team, the No. 18 Florida men’s tennis team won its first SEC matchup against No. 17 Georgia 5-2 Friday in Gainesville.
The result gave a much-needed confidence boost to Florida (6-4, 1-0 SEC) after it lost two of its three matches at the National Team Indoor Championships in Seattle two weeks ago.
“We learned a lot about ourselves in Seattle,” Shelton said. “We realized we had to come together as a team and be at our very best to win.”
Florida saw consistent play from the entire team while Crawford and senior Chase Perez-Blanco led the way in both singles and doubles. The duo clinched the doubles point for the Gators for the second time this season.
The No. 1-ranked doubles pair of Alfredo Perez and Johannes Ingildsen were back together as well and clicked on all cylinders, winning their set decisively 6-2.
In singles play, Crawford and Perez-Blanco stepped up again.
Perez-Blanco’s heated matchup on court six with Georgia’s Robert Loeb represented the rivalry the Bulldogs (6-3, 0-1 SEC) and Florida share. Even the typically level-headed Shelton loudly argued a call with the umpire over whether a ball was out or not.
The senior won the intense match in straight sets to put the Gators up 2-1.
“Chase was a catalyst for us,” Shelton said.
Perez later cruised to a 6-3 win in the first set over No. 11 Wayne Montgomery. A more competitive 7-5 second set clinched the victory that put the Gators within one point of winning. After freshman Duarte Vale lost on Court 3 to make it 3-2, all eyes turned to another freshman on court four to put it away.
Crawford’s dramatic win in the third set gave Florida its fourth point and the victory. For him, this was a feeling of relief.
The Miami native faced a similar position against Florida State Feb. 3. With the match tied 3-3, Crawford was leaned on to secure the win for Florida, but could not pull it off, losing both sets and the match for the team.
“I told him then that he would have more opportunities,” Shelton said, “and he came through tonight.”
Crawford, usually a very animated and passionate player on the court, was uncharacteristically calm as he redeemed himself with hard serves and quick feet against No. 28-ranked singles player Jan Zielinski.
“You want to get fired up with your fans,” Crawford said. “It’s a long match, and you just have to be steady in those big moments.”
The Gators will have a quick turnaround as they face Tennessee at home Sunday. First serves are scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville.