Gainesville, Fla. Junior Mike Alford clinched the University of Florida men's tennis team's 4-2 victory against UNC-Wilmington in the championship match of the ITA Kick-Off Weekend at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex on Sunday. Alford rallied after dropping the first set to defeat UNCW’s Kaue Pereira, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, at No. 4 singles to assure the Gators’ victory.
With the victory against UNC-Wilmington, the team improved to 4-0 on the season and advances to the ITA National Indoors next month in Seattle, hosted by the University of Washington.
“I give that team a lot of credit,” said head coach Bryan Shelton following the match. “I thought they were a well-coached team and it really showed. It showed up in the doubles right away. Right off the bat, this team came after us. They were aggressive, they moved a ton in doubles at the net, everybody was looking for the ball – they came to win. They weren’t trying to just put on a good show. They came to win the match. I give them a lot of credit because it’s not easy to be on the road and come out with that much energy and excitement when we have the crowd on our side. Those guys were hungry and I think they’re going to make some noise the rest of the year as well.”
UF began the match in an early hole after UNC-Wilmington took the point in doubles competition. At No. 3 doubles, the Seahawk duo of Pereira and Michael Reilly defeated Florida’s Stephane Piro and Bob van Overbeek, 8-4. Kosta Blank and Chris Cooprider, the 10th-ranked doubles pair in the nation, clinched the doubles point with an 8-5 victory against No. 45 Alford and Florent Diep. Billy Federhofer and Gordon Watson led No. 53 Rafael Aita and Sam Williams, 7-4, when play was halted.
“[After losing the doubles point] I think we just didn’t want to lose focus or get down,” said Coach Shelton. “We felt like we’d be able to rebound in the singles, and I told the guys, “Hey, just stay focused in on your own court. We need every single match. Let’s try to get six on the board for our team.” You don’t want the guys to start looking at everyone else’s courts and start watching scoreboards and stuff like that. You want them just focusing in on one point at a time and staying there. We had game plans. We just wanted them to follow the game plan and go out there and execute it.”
The Gators did rebound in singles and tied the match at 1-1, as Federhofer earned a victory at No. 6 singles when he defeated UNC-Wilmington's Michael Reilly in straight sets, 6-1, 6-2.
“I thought that they came out and punched us in the mouth right off the bat [in doubles],” said Coach Shelton. “I was glad to see us put the next point on the board with Billy on No. 6. He did a good job of being a catalyst to get something going for our team.”
Following Diep's first dual-match loss of the season, a 4-6, 3-6 loss to Aita, Florida was trailing again, 2-1. Watson was able knot things back up for the Gators after beating the Seahawks' Blank, 6-2, 6-4, on court five.
“I started off playing really well, serving well, everything was working pretty good,” said Watson. “[Blank] changed his game as the match progressed and I had to go after it a little bit more and figure out what he was doing and how I could beat him with his changes. I won the first set relatively easy, got down 4-2 [in the second set] and he was serving at game point to go up 5-2. I dug down deep, won that point and broke him to get to 4-3. That was a huge momentum change and that put me on the way to a win.”
With Florida tied at 2-2 overall, van Overbeek was able to give the home team their first lead of the day following his 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory at No. 2 singles. The Boca Raton, Fla. native rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the final set to take the match and set up Alford for the clinching win.
“I was down 3-0, 15-40 and serving,” said van Overbeek after the match. “I had a big point and I came into the net and almost got lobbed, but I hit a winner on that. From then on, I started playing a little more aggressively, but making sure I was executing the shots. If he was going to win a point, try and make him beat me rather than give him any free points. I started putting all my returns in, which at least got me in the point on his [service] games, which I needed because I needed to break back. At the same time, I started making a lot more first serves, which was leading to easier short balls on my service games and gave me a few easy service games and put a lot more pressure on him. I really made sure I tightened things up, didn’t make a ton of errors, and at the same time when I had my opportunities I knew I had to take them.”
Piro dropped his first set against Williams at No. 3 singles, but fought back and won the second set in a tiebreaker. Officials decided not to complete the match with the score at 3-6, 7-6 (5), 1-1.
The Gators will be back in action on Sunday, February 3, when the team hosts Furman. Doubles play is scheduled to begin at 12 p.m.