The Florida Gators women’s tennis team began its 2023 campaign ranked No. 18 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The team had a notable 2022 season in which they reached the Sweet 16 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament — a mark they hadn’t achieved since their 2017 National Championship win.
Last season looked like a step in the right direction for the program, but in the offseason that followed, several roster moves occurred.
The Gators lost three key seniors: McCartney Kessler, the No. 10-ranked ITA singles player and No. 24 doubles partner alongside current sophomore Alicia Dudeney; Marlee Zein, who rotated throughout Florida’s top three singles positions and finished No. 33 in doubles with current senior Carly Briggs; and Sydney Berlin, who fluctuated in and out of the bottom positions of singles. Former Florida assistant coach Lauren Embree also departed before the spring season began.
The future of this team was murky, but the recruiting class was bright.
Florida brought in three key freshmen: Rachel Gailis, Anastasia Sysoeva and Sophie Williams. Embree was replaced by former Georgia Tech men’s tennis head coach Jeremy Bayon. Each has taken a large step to fill the shoes of their predecessors and lift the team to where it stands today.
The Gators finished out their regular season with an impressive 16-7 record and a No. 16 ranking by the ITA. They went 9-4 in Southeastern Conference competition and reached the semifinals in the SEC tournament; they fell to No. 2 Texas A&M.
The NCAA tournament is set to officially begin Friday, and the Gators’ first match will occur against the North Florida Ospreys at 2 p.m. at Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex.
Florida hasn’t achieved an NCAA championship since 2017. The players are young, but that doesn’t count them out. If all the right pieces fall into place, Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist could hoist his fifth NCAA trophy.
The outcome of Florida’s matches have been largely contingent on the team’s play in doubles and its performances on the top three courts in singles play. When either factor experiences struggles, the team’s overall performance tends to follow.
Doubles play has been the biggest factor this season. The Gators are 11-1 when winning the doubles point but are a measly 2-5 when they lose it. The doubles point is crucial; it provides an early lead and also mentally prepares Florida for the longer, more grueling singles competition.
Thornqvist has experimented throughout the season with different lineups but seems to have set two solid pairings that are likely to be utilized throughout the tournament.
The doubles lineup is headlined by the No. 21-ranked ITA pair of Dudeney and sophomore Bente Spee. The tandem is 9-3 in dual-match competition and has strung together a couple of impressive wins throughout the season.
The duo defeated Michigan Wolverines juniors Jaeden Brown and Kari Miller — the No. 3-ranked ITA pair — 6-2. The pair also dominated the No. 31-ranked pair of Auburn Tigers junior Ariana Arseneault and senior Carolyn Ansari, who were defeated 6-0.
The second doubles pair features Gailis and Briggs — the ITA’s No. 67-ranked doubles duo. The tandem didn’t start out the year paired together, but they have slowly found their stride throughout the season.
“We have really good communication,” Gailis said. “I trust her from the back a bunch.”
The freshman also acknowledged a change the duo made during the latter half of the season: switching sides. The tandem switched sides after Gailis brought up the idea with Thornqvist, and since then, the duo has been playing “better and better,” Gailis said. The statistics back up her claim; the pair won three of their last four matchups since making the change.
The other piece of the puzzle comes from the top three of the lineup: Briggs, Dudeney and junior Sara Dahlstrom.
The Florida junior is ranked No. 17 by the ITA and has been one of the most promising players for Florida. She is 9-3 since moving to the top court in singles.
Briggs has shown flashes of greatness throughout the season but has been quiet as of late. She went unfinished in four of her last six matchups and lost two.
Dudeney won three of her last four matchups. The UF sophomore experienced a midseason streak of eight singles victories and seems to be on a surge at the right time as the team heads into NCAA tournament play.
UF begins its tournament play against the No. 75 Ospreys at 2 p.m. Friday. Florida is an impressive 23-0 in the first round of the tournament. A win against the Ospreys would be followed by a Saturday afternoon matchup against the Central Florida Knights or Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.