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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Winning isn't everything, at least not in regular-season men's tennis matches.

When the No. 11 Gators lost at No. 16 LSU 4-3 on Sunday, UF coach Andy Jackson was disappointed but not surprised.

"I definitely didn't feel like we took a step back," Jackson said. "We were disappointed, because it drops us two games behind the (Southeastern Conference) leader, but it wasn't from lack of effort or wasn't from lack of preparedness. Really, from a level of play, we just got beat.

"Still, that's not taking a step back, except in the standings. And the standings aren't as important as the direction you feel like your team's going in."

All season, this young Gators squad, flooded with five freshmen, has had one goal - to prepare to play its best in the NCAA Tournament by playing and beating high-quality teams.

UF (11-5, 6-2 SEC) will get two more chances to prepare itself this weekend against top-ranked opponents.

The Gators will host No. 26 Auburn (9-9, 3-5 SEC) on Friday at 3 p.m. and then face No. 24 Alabama (14-8, 4-4 SEC) on Sunday at 1 p.m. Both teams defeated UF late last season.

Although these are regular-season matches, Jackson said they will be critical for his team's postseason success.

"I think they are monumental, because we didn't get to host (the NCAA first and second rounds) last year because we couldn't beat Auburn or Alabama," he said. "I feel like our magic number is pretty close to two. Any kind of combination of two wins out of our guaranteed next four (matches), I think that we're gonna host."

UF has not backed away from any challenges so far this season. It has faced 10 teams currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Top 30 and is 5-5 against those teams.

The Gators are 3-1 against teams currently ranked in the Top 10 and have proven they can hang with the nation's elite.

While UF is clearly battle-tested, the regular season doesn't hold much water if the team fails to advance in the postseason.

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"Tennis is very much like basketball," Jackson said. "It may not be fair, but the whole season's success is based on how you do at the NCAA Tournament. And the tournament hasn't even started yet, so basically our season hasn't even started.

"We have to get better and get prepared for the beginning of the season, which is gonna be that NCAA (Tournament)."

The UF women's tennis team will look to clinch at least a share of the SEC regular-season title with a win at No. 34 Auburn on Friday or at No. 75 Alabama on Sunday. Two wins would give the team the title outright with one match remaining.

UF shut out both teams last season.

The No. 3 Gators (14-1, 8-0 SEC) have won 11 straight matches, nine of which came against teams that were ranked No. 27 or higher at the time.

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