Alone with only the sound of music playing from his phone and the power of his imagination, freshman Oliver Crawford prepared to serve.
Ahead of the Florida men’s tennis team’s season opener against UCF on Jan. 22, Crawford had been excused from practice that day after spending the previous week in South Florida competing in a professional tournament.
But Crawford didn’t waste the moment. On a back court at the Ring Tennis Complex, he stood beside a small basket of balls and served.
The pop echoed in the empty air. Crawford watched the serve pass through the court untouched by his imaginary opponent and began pumping his arms over his head, exciting his imaginary crowd.
Less than a week later, Crawford played for a real crowd. He loved it.
“I’ve never been that excited to step foot on a court,” he said of his first dual match as a Gator.
After three dual matches, Crawford was 2-0 in singles play and 3-0 in doubles with his partner, senior Chase Perez-Blanco.
On Saturday night against Florida State, however, Crawford tasted his first defeat since the start of the dual-match season.
To begin the match, Florida and FSU split the top two courts in doubles play, leaving the opening point down to the duo of Crawford and Perez-Blanco to fight for. It was losing late in the match, but two consecutive forehand winners from Crawford fought off a series of match points for their opponents and evened the score. In celebration, Crawford turned to the wildly enthusiastic crowd and pumped his arms over his head, calling for more noise.
“He stepped up big getting us back in doubles,” coach Bryan Shelton said. “He kept us alive.”
But the Gators’ pair couldn’t string together enough points to fight off the eventual 7-6(3) defeat, losing Florida the doubles point for the first time this season.
In singles, Crawford played on the No. 2 court after junior Alfredo Perez was held out of the lineup due to a coach’s decision. The biggest match of his young Gator career became even bigger when Florida State evened the score at 3-3. Like in doubles, the final point was determined on Crawford’s court.
Every player and fan watched as the freshman battled from behind, carrying his team’s only hope. He fought off one, two, three match points, never letting the pressure slow him down.
At 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, Crawford was a single point away from extending the match once more. But, just like in doubles, his efforts weren’t enough. Redshirt senior Lucas Poullain sealed Florida State’s 4-3 victory with a forehand winner, winning the match 7-6(4), 7-6 (5).
The match was the first of what will likely be many opportunities for Crawford to be a hero for his team. Florida’s captain, junior McClain Kessler, trusts his teammate will grow from playing under that pressure.
“Even when he was down, I would’ve bet on him winning,” Kessler said. “But I think from this match, he’s going to learn for way bigger moments.”