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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Riffice represents Gators tennis at US Open, Shelton forced to withdraw

The senior and sophomore stars qualified for the singles and doubles tournaments, respectively

<p>Florida’s Ben Shelton prepares to hit a ball against Auburn on Feb. 21, 2021.Shelton’s late, court three victory gave the Gators a 4-3 victory over No. 3 Texas</p>

Florida’s Ben Shelton prepares to hit a ball against Auburn on Feb. 21, 2021.Shelton’s late, court three victory gave the Gators a 4-3 victory over No. 3 Texas

Florida men’s tennis players Ben Shelton and Sam Riffice both qualified for the US Open in Flushing, New York, which takes place from Aug. 30 through Sept. 12. 

Shelton, however, was forced to withdraw from doubles competition after he entered COVID-19 protocols on Sunday. 

Shelton qualified for the tournament for the first time in his career. He received wild card bids into the main doubles draw after he won the Boys’ 18 & under doubles division with partner Bruno Kuzuhara at the United States Tennis Association Boys’ 18 & 16 National Championships. 

Shelton didn’t have the luxury of earning automatic entry into the singles tournament, but he worked his way into the singles qualifying draw after he finished runner-up in Boys’ 18 & under singles at the same event. 

The Florida phenom, ranked 801st in men’s singles according to the tournament website, knocked off presumptive favorite No. 181 Michael Mmoh, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-5), to advance. 

He now sat two wins away from the main draw. Shelton once again faced a highly ranked opponent, No. 118 Botic Van de Zandschulp from the Netherlands. Van de Zandschulp grabbed the first set 6-3, but Shelton managed to even the match, winning 7-5. In the decisive third set, Shelton fell 6-4 to end up two rounds short of a tournament berth.

Riffice, on the other hand, competed in junior Grand Slam titles three times before. While playing major international tennis tournaments is nothing new for the UF captain, it’s still a monumental moment for the senior. 

"Playing in the U.S. growing up as an American junior, the goal is always to play in the US Open,” Riffice said in a release. “Being in college and knowing you have one opportunity to get that by winning the NCAA tournament, it's a big deal.”

Last year, Riffice lost in the first qualifying round, 6-2, 6-4. 

Riffice earned a wild card by winning the NCAA Singles Championship this spring, making him the third player in program history to win it. 

Riffice’s championship stint was short-lived, however. He squared off against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, the tournament's No. 15 seed, on Monday. The Florida captain fought valiantly against the elite foe, but he fell in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Despite the loss, head coach Bryan Shelton knew the chance to play on an international stage was no small feat for his players.

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"It's one of those opportunities that you can't really put a price tag on," head coach Bryan Shelton said. "Being able to soak in this environment and to get a real feeling of what it's like to rub shoulders with the very best in the world... to see how they practice, practicing with them and to compete against them... there's no better environment to be in. 

“It's a motivator, it's something that validates all the hard work they already put in and it tells them that they are getting closer in narrowing the gaps."

Contact Brian Olmo at bolmo@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianOlmo0211.

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