GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Ben Sheltonthe No. 1-ranked player in college tennis, was up a set and a game away from closing out Kentucky’s Liam Draxl, the nation’s No. 8 player, at No. 1 singles Sunday at the Southeastern Conference Championships in Athens, Ga. Shelton, the Florida sophomore, was up 5-4 in the second set and serving not only to close out his match, but the tournament title for the Gators.
Draxl, though, broke Shelton to even the second set at five games a piece.
That was when Draxl, known for his brash and emotional ways, turned to the crowd at McWhorter Courts and began screaming into the bleachers.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?”
“HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?”
From across the net, Shelton feels back a curious look as he reached for a towel between games.
“Trash talk doesn’t phase Ben,” UF coach Bryan Shelton said of his son and All-America tennis star. “He played a bunch of sports growing up. He played football all those years. He just smiles at that stuff.”
Yeah, a killer’s smile. Less than 10 minutes later, Shelton was a blowing an ace past Draxl for championship point and tossing his racquet in jubilation after finishing off the Gators’ dominating 4-0 shutout of the 10th-ranked Wildcats, as well the program’s first SEC Tournament crown since 2016. A quick embrace with his father was followed by a customary post-match handshake with Draxl, then it was off to celebrate with his teammates.
Hey college tennis nation! How do you like the Gators now?
Shelton, the coach, loves them after finally adding the elusive first tournament title in six years. Last season, UF won the conference regular-season crown, only to lose to bitter-rival Tennessee in the tournament final. The Gators watched as the Volunteers celebrated—and oh did they celebrate. Think Draxl, except with an actual victory.
Florida, of course, did not lose another match after that one, rolling to six straight victories to claim the first national championship in program history.
Two weeks ago, the Gators won their third consecutive SEC regular-season title, then last weekend finished off a perfect 12-0 league record. Now they have the tournament trophy for pairing, not to mention the nation’s deepest, most talented team that looks the part of a repeat national champion.
These Gators, now 23-2 and winners of 18 consecutive matches, are better than last year’s version. Bold statement, perhaps. Then again, it depends on who’s making it.
“I think we are, yes,” Shelton acknowledged. “It doesn’t mean we’ll hold that final trophy, but we’re going to go after it with everything we’ve got. We have a lot of the same guys who have made improvements in their games. We’re a year more mature and know how to win, know how to stay composed in the big moments, and along the way we have improved as a team. That’s what you want.”
UF won its 12 league matches by an aggregate score of 66-14, absolutely laying waste to the conference competition. Only one SEC opponent took three games off the Gators and that was Kentucky back on March 6. That Florida waxed the Wildcats 4-0 Sunday — and won its three tournament matches by a combined 12-2 — would seem to co-sign Shelton’s assessment that his players have collectively improved.
Another marker on that front: How ’bout 18 consecutive victories in doubles? Sure, it’s only one point, but that’s a significant hole to climb when heading into singles against a UF team that trots out fifth-year senior Josh Goodger at No. 6. Goodger went 22-0 in singles last year, playing mostly at No. 5. Goodger played No. 5 singles the second half of this season while Michigan grad-transfer Mattias Siimar was working through a stomach issue. Siimar, who was 6-1 in dual matches pre-injury, returned to the lineup this weekend, and while both his singles matches went unfinished, the Gators — with another two weeks before NCAAs — figure to be a full strength when it comes time to begin defense of their title.
“I think our team is really ready to make a deep run and be a contender,” said Ben Sheltonwho improved to 29-5 in singles over the weekend, and alongside reigning NCAA singles champion Sam Riffice went perfect in three double matches, as well, on his way to tournament MVP honors. “I think that everybody is really mentally tough, and hopefully we’re going to come out on top.”
That remains to be seen, but the Gators certainly will start at the top of the seedings when the NCAA Championships open at the home venues of the 16 highest-seeds May 6-7. They’ll be focused, bet on that.
Case in point: In Friday’s quarterfinals, UF shut down LSU 4-1, but Shelton and his staff didn’t like some things they saw in the Gators overall execution, body language and other little things. What they got away with against the Tigers would be exploited by the Volunteers, a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation halfway through the league season (until a 5-2 loss to the Gators).
Shelton, the coach, saw a different vibe with his players in the 4-1 vanquishing of the Vols on Saturday. Ditto Sunday in demolishing a second straight top-10 foe.
And he loved what he saw from fifth-year senior Duarte Vale in the victorious, championship post-game locker room. The Gators celebrated and enjoyed the moment, but Vale, with 200 career victories in both singles and doubles under his belt, provided a joy of reality at the moment.
His message was something like this: “We’re not done yet. Let’s make sure we do everything we need to do over the next couple weeks to be as prepared as possible for that next one.”
“That’s what leaders do,” Shelton said.
Question: How do you like ’em now, Gator Nation?
Answer: Probably pretty well, but don’t think they’re satisfied. Far from it.