Gators women’s tennis coach Roland Thornqvist reminds his players every practice of an ancient Greek myth — the story of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a man condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain. Every time he reached the top, however, it rolled back to the bottom. Sisyphus would remain stuck in this cycle for all of eternity, but he eventually found joy in his struggle as he hoped for success.
Florida junior Emma Shelton draws from this Greek lesson. She finds joy in her dedication to reach the top of the mountain with her boulder: becoming a top collegiate tennis player. Now, two years after she left Gainesville to embark on her tennis journey, she finally returned home.
“If you have players that are super talented and work hard and are helpful, then you can go really far as a team,” Thornqvist said. “Emma in particular is super motivated, you don't have to tell her twice to do anything.”
Shelton’s path to playing for Florida wasn’t as clear as Sisyphus’ trek up the mountain. As the daughter of Florida men’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton, she first ventured on the university courts at around 10 years old practicing with her father as Thornqvist observed.
Those hitting practices over the years paid off. She attended Buchholz High School and was highly sought-after as a five-star recruit.
She eventually committed to play in the SEC — but not with her father’s program. She left the shadow of the Gators in 2019 to play college tennis for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
During her two years at South Carolina, Shelton racked up accolades for her efforts on and off the court. She was named the 2020 ITA Carolina Region Rookie of the Year, and a ITA Scholar-Athlete and SEC Academic Honor Roll athlete her freshman year.
Even across states, her family never drifted too far apart. She fondly remembers her victory as a Gamecock in the USTA Winter National Championships in January 2020. Her brother, Ben Shelton, now a sophomore on the Florida men’s tennis team, competed in the same tournament at the same time.
“I thought it was cool to go back and play a junior tournament after I was already in college,” she said. “And it was also a good experience because ... a lot of my family was there.”
With former professional players on both sides of the family tree, tennis is a family affair for the Sheltons. Now, so are the Gators.
Thornqvist recalls how quickly Shelton immersed herself into the Gators program’s culture.
“She's seen our program through a decade of dominance, so I think Emma had a good idea of what a good team [looks] like,” Thornqvist said. “I was very impressed with some of the questions and concerns she had as far as getting the team back to a championship level.”
Shelton also takes it upon herself to act as a positive force and a support system for her teammates. She was the first to welcome two European freshmen tennis players, Bente Spee and Alicia Dudeney, when they arrived in Gainesville earlier this year. She picked them up from the airport and took them to Target.
Thornqvist factored into Shelton’s decision to transfer: His positivity and calming presence on the court drew her back to Florida.
“He's an awesome coach, and he's super positive which really helps me on the court sometimes to lighten up and see the good things,” Shelton said.
Their shared vision for the team made Shelton’s transition to her old training ground seamless.
“I'm so excited to be back,” she said. “It’s already so nice being home and having my family here and having that support system for us to all be lifting each other up.”
Shelton harbors high expectations for herself and the team this season. The junior itches for the prospect of achieving the success her brother and father found a year ago with a national championship. The thought spurs her to push her own boulder up the mountain, every day.
“I'm super excited to be on the team with a lot of new faces, another transfer and some upperclassmen,” she said. “I think that our team has everything that it takes to be at the top.”
Fellow SEC transfer Carly Briggs, another one of the team’s new faces, came from Tennessee. She and Shelton crossed paths at junior tournaments in the past but never really got the chance to get to know each other before uniting in Gainesville.
“Seeing her coming here actually made me want to go here even more,” Briggs said. “She's the kind of person that you want to be on your team.”
Being an older transfer can be isolating, but Briggs and Shelton connected right away. The two began to share inside jokes in the weight room within a month of their first meeting, drawing curious and confused looks from teammates.
“She's already like my best friend,” Briggs said. “There's actually not been a single day that I have not seen her.”
The SEC Championship will run through the Gators’ turf this year at Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex. The team’s desire to defend its home offers additional motivation for Shelton and the rest of the team.
As teammates continue to push the boulder up the hill, they marvel at the intensity Shelton brings to the court. Senior Marlee Zein knows what it is like to play with and against Shelton.
“She has a lot of energy when she plays,” Zein said. “She's super loud, and that's always a good thing.”
Through hours of practice, Zein and Shelton have forged a strong bond. They consider the short fall season an opportunity to prepare and lay the groundwork for the spring when the Gators can compete for a conference or national title.
The Gators still have a long way before they try to roll the rock up the mountain again this season. With Shelton on their side, though, they may find joy in the struggle.
Contact Brenda Bogle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bogle_brenda.
Brenda Bogle is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in sports and media. She joined The Alligator in the Fall of 2021.