2021 was a wildly successful year for the Gators men’s tennis team. They not only claimed the program’s first team national championship, but rising senior Sam Riffice also became the third Gator to win an individual national championship.
Florida enters the new year as the preseason No. 1 and title favorite. High expectations are fueled by elite returning talent plus a few additions to the team.
However, the team doesn’t view the challenge of defending the title any differently than winning it in the first place. Riffice emphasized the team hopes to approach every game with the hunger that led them through the NCAA Tournament last season.
“We start this season at 0-0, Riffice said. “We don’t have any of the wins we had last year, so I think everyone approaches it in that way and we’re excited to go have some good matches.”
The Gators welcome back seven players: Riffice, seniors Duarte Vale, Andy Andrade, Josh Goodger, Lukas Greif, junior Will Grant, and sophomore Ben Shelton. The team also adds three newcomers including freshman Nate Bonetto, Abedallah Shelbayh, and Michigan graduate transfer Mattias Siimar. With only six spots open in the lineup, the Gators have a pretty crowded roster.
Riffice notes that the Gators have taken this competition in stride, embracing the constant pressure and consistent effort required to keep a starting position.
“They (Riffice’s teammates) know if they have a bad week they might not play that weekend,” Riffice said. “ It kinda pushes everyone on each day in practice.”
All three newcomers will certainly be in the mix for starting spots after Nate Bonetto asserted himself in the fall, rising to a No. 79 ranking. Meanwhile, Shelbayh and Siimar make up the Gators’ highest-ranked doubles pairing at No. 14. This is a great problem for the Gators to have, but head coach Bryan Shelton knows it will come with plenty of tough decisions throughout the season.
“It’s really challenging,” Shelton said about balancing UF’s talented roster. “(We try) to weigh out long-term versus short-term gains and give guys opportunities to get their feet wet and compete and play.
Shelton is likely to rotate parts of the lineup this year in order to foster development, as he believes that a winning formula is one where your primary goal is to help the players on the team improve individually and the team results will follow.
“It didn’t really matter who we put out there on the court,” Shelton said. “We felt very comfortable with all of our guys being able to go out there and compete at a high level.”
Florida’s schedule will pit Shelton’s philosophy against a stiff test straight from the first game of the season. Each of UF’s first three games come against top-15 opposition, including a brutal road trip to the Lone Star State against No. 5 TCU and No. 3 Texas.
“Our schedule is murderer’s row,” Shelton said. “We’re not shying away from competition so we’re gonna find out exactly what we’ve got from day one.
The Gators will kick off their season Friday against the Horned Frogs before a trip to Austin to face the Longhorns on Sunday.