GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Gators junior Stephane Piro first saw the documentary on French television two or three years ago.
A television crew from Piro’s native France crossed the Atlantic with cameras aimed at UF, where it filmed the documentary on the school and Florida’s growing population of French students.
Former Gators tennis standout Alex Lacroix, whom Piro knew from the elite junior circuit in France, was mentioned in the film shown only on French television, as was former Gators basketball player Joakim Noah. The wheels started to spin in Piro’s head, and his interest in the Gators culminated when he enrolled and joined the men’s tennis program in January 2012.
A year later Piro finally makes his Gators home debut Saturday when Florida hosts Miami at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex.
An elite-level junior player in France who first took residence at the French Tennis Federation in Paris as a 12-year-old, the 23-year-old Piro is a now a UF junior and important member of first-year coach Bryan Shelton’s plans.
When Shelton replaced former coach Andy Jackson in June, Piro was somewhat of a mystery. Under Jackson and former assistant Jeremy Bayon, the Gators developed strong recruiting ties in France that led them to Piro.
Once Shelton unpacked and started to evaluate his new team, the former Georgia Tech women’s coach was glad to have Piro on the roster.
“I didn’t know a thing about him when I first took over here,’’ Shelton said. “I just heard the rumors. I heard this guy could play.”
In the seven months since Shelton arrived, Piro has confirmed those rumors in practice. He finally made his Florida debut last weekend at the Three Oaks Shootout in Fort Myers, winning three singles and three doubles matches in the round-robin event.
Piro’s long-awaited return to competitive tennis was a successful one he wants to parlay into bigger things as the season progresses.
“It was kind of a surprise when I got there,’’ Piro said. “I wasn’t nervous. I was really at peace to be out there, to compete and be on the court and to see my other teammates play next to me. I didn’t think about the pressure and that stuff.”
Piro wrapped up his Gators debut Sunday with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Georgia Tech’s Vikram Hundal in singles, and teaming with Luke Johnson to knock off N.C. State’s Trey Carter and Rafael Paez in doubles.
Piro will try to serve up the same kind of performance Saturday when the Gators host the Hurricanes.
Shelton, who led the Georgia Tech women to a national title in 2007, sees a polished and skilled player in Piro. A player who is hungry for wins after his year away from the limelight of competition.
“We’ve certainly seen a difference in him,’’ Shelton said. “He’s got a little more of pep in his step. He is really excited about playing. It gets old to practice every day without the competition.”
During his year to adjust to UF and college tennis, Piro spent countless hours on the practice court. In the spring and fall when his teammates departed for tournaments, Piro remained in Gainesville and often worked on his game, primarily his return of serve. He played more on clay in France than on the hard courts he’ll play on in college.
He also made a renewed commitment to conditioning, an important part of his game plan on the court.
“He plays a pretty physical game,’’ Shelton said. “He doesn’t rely on hitting big serves or ending the point with a 1-2 punch. He is more of a guy that will beat you up. In order to beat someone up, you have to be able to take their shots too and be able to defend.”
Over the holiday break Piro went home to France for three weeks. While there he got sick and when he returned for the spring semester earlier this month, he had lost some of the energy and strength built up from early morning workouts.
Still, he was in good enough shape to go undefeated at the Three Oaks Shootout.
The year on the sideline gave Piro time to refocus his tennis goals and develop patience that he wasn’t sure he had.
“It was not too bad,’’ he said. “I could adapt to the American university. When I came back in the fall, it was tough because all of my teammates were leaving every week. Now to be able to play, I’m really at peace to be out there with my teammates and coaches.”
At 5-foot-10 and 169 pounds, the left-handed Piro doesn’t cast a formidable presence on the court. But from what Shelton has seen, he has the perfect combination of confidence and ability to be a dangerous threat at the top of the Florida’s lineup.
His game has some personality, too.
“He’s a playmaker. He is going to enjoy being on the stage here,’’ Shelton. “I think guys are going to have a hard time finding the hole in his game. He definitely has his own style. He’s got some creativity out on the court.
“You can tell he is not your average guy who is just starting his eligibility. He sees the game very well. He understands the game and what he needs to do out there on the court. I think he is going to be able to compete with the very best players in college tennis right off the bat.”
In some ways Piro’s game mirrors that of Lacroix, who ended his career in 2011 as the program’s all-time wins leader with 214 career victories (110 singles, 114 doubles). Neither player is overpowering. They rely on strong serve-and-volley play and occasional artistry to beat opponents.
Seeing Lacroix and UF on that documentary helped Piro find his way to UF. Now he is ready to make his mark on the court like Lacroix and other French players in the program’s past have.
“When you have not played for a year, I wasn’t expecting to play like that. That was good. I’m real pleased with what happened last weekend,’’ Piro said. “I’m happy to be here.”
Shelton is happy he’s here, too.