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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Florida men's tennis set to face Georgia tonight with SEC championship up for grabs

<p>UF coach Bryan Shelton (right) congratulates McClain Kessler during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.</p>

UF coach Bryan Shelton (right) congratulates McClain Kessler during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.

The Florida men’s tennis team has made it clear that one of its top priorities is to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season title.

When the No. 14 Gators (12-5, 7-1 SEC) take on No. 7 Georgia (14-3, 8-0 SEC) tonight at 5 in Athens, those championship aspirations will be put to the test.

With Georgia currently holding a one-match advantage over Florida for first place in the SEC, a victory for the Gators tonight would give them a share of the lead in the standings with three matches left on the schedule. A loss to UGA, however, would most likely hand the SEC crown over to the Bulldogs.

"We’ve got to win on Friday night, and our guys know it," coach Bryan Shelton said. "Our back is up against the wall. (Georgia is) undefeated right now in the league. We’ve got a loss. Our guys will be ready to play."

Florida enters tonight’s match coming off its first home loss of the spring, a 5-2 defeat at the hands of defending national champion Virginia on Wednesday.

Despite starting off with a win in doubles, the Gators struggled in singles play against the Cavaliers, losing five out of six matches for the first time this year.

"Where we ran into a little bit of trouble (was) finishing out some sets," Shelton said. "We were up breaks in different matches … so we had opportunities to put some first sets on the board, and we didn’t get too many of them."

UF will need to perform better tonight in singles competition, as Georgia features two nationally-ranked top-40 players in senior Austin Smith and sophomore Wayne Montgomery.

Smith played a large role in the Bulldogs’ 4-1 victory over Florida last season, defeating then-sophomore Maxx Lipman 6-1, 6-4 in straight sets.

In doubles, UGA boasts the No. 4-ranked duo in the country in Smith and senior Ben Wagland. The tandem has been as tough to beat as any doubles pair in the NCAA this season, sporting an 11-3 record including wins in eight of their past 10 matches.

On the other side of the net, one player to keep an eye on for Florida is freshman McClain Kessler, who didn’t appear to be 100-percent healthy against Virginia on Wednesday.

After coming up hobbled in the middle of singles play, Kessler was frequently worked on by a team trainer during breaks for the duration of his match.

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Kessler has been crucial to the Gators’ success this season, going 10-5 in singles while also serving as an emotional catalyst for his teammates. If the first-year player from Calhoun, Georgia, is unable to go tonight, his absence will be felt.

"We’ll assess that and let the doctors look at him and figure out where he’s at," Shelton said. "But he’s a fighter, and we know he’ll be back strong."

Contact Dylan Dixon at ddixon@alligator.org and you can follow him on Twitter @dylanrdixon

UF coach Bryan Shelton (right) congratulates McClain Kessler during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.

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