Editor’s Note: This feature originally posted on floridagators.com on May 5 and written by staff writer Scott Carter.
By Scott Carter
Staff Writer / FloridaGators.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If framed only by the numbers of the final results, then the Gators’ victory over Florida State on Saturday seemingly offered little resistance for the UF men’s tennis team.
The No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, Florida dispatched of the rival Seminoles 4-0 to advance to the round of 16 next weekend when it hosts Southeastern Conference nemesis Tennessee, which upset the Gators in the SEC Tournament on April 20, in a rematch for a berth deeper into the postseason.
The same can be said of UF’s clinching victory by senior Alfredo Perez. Much as the match overall – Florida had to claw through a win in doubles to set the tone – Perez was forced to sweat in one of his most important individual victories with the Gators.
“It wasn’t easy,” the 6-foot-3 Cuban-born Perez said soon after taking cover in the air condition while gulping water. “Both singles and doubles were tied matches.”
And both times Perez was involved in the decisive match.
In No. 2 doubles competition, Perez and teammate Sam Riffice battled FSU’s Juan Martin Jalif and Lucas Poullain after the teams split the Nos. 1 and 3 singles matches. The match went to a tiebreaker, with Perez and Riffice surviving 7-6 (7-5) to give the Gators the early advantage. In Friday’s first round, Perez and Riffice cruised to a win in doubles over Florida Gulf Coast. Saturday was a different story.
UF head coach Bryan Shelton pointed back to the Tennessee loss as providing an assist. The disappointing loss snapped Florida’s 15-match win streak and was a stunning end for the Gators, hosting their first SEC Tournament in eight years.
In the two weeks since, the team refocused and put in overtime on the courts and in the gym. Playing in summer-like weather Saturday underneath a blazing sun, Perez and Riffice refused to wilt with the crucial doubles point hanging in the balance.
“I think that [extra work] really prepared us to be able to withstand the pressure there at the end of that doubles point,” Shelton said. “For Alfredo and Sam to come up with their best tennis when it mattered most.”
After Andy Andrade (No. 5 singles) and McClain Kessler (No. 6) made quick work of their opponents Saturday, the Gators needed just one win in the four remaining singles matches to advance. As the matches unfolded, it appeared Gators sophomore Oliver Crawford might seal the deal with a win over Poullain at No. 1 singles.
Perez, battling FSU’s Richard Thongoana two courts over at No. 4 singles, caught a glimpse of the scoreboard, rooting for long points on Crawford’s court as he tried to put away Thongoana in the second set after needing another tiebreaker to win the first set 7-6 (7-4).
“I was going to be a little upset if I was up 5-1 again and not be able to finish it,” Perez said of his near-win over FGCU’s Marcelo Tebet on Friday going unfinished a point away from clinching. “I was able to stay concentrated and get the job done for the team. It’s always good to beat FSU.”
Perez capped UF’s shutout over the Seminoles by closing out Thongoana 6-2 in the second set, setting off a loud roar at Linder Stadium as the Gators advanced to the round of 16 for the fourth consecutive season.
One of only two seniors on the team, Perez has been around all four years. His two victories Saturday moved him into the program’s all-time top 10 for overall career wins (171-66 career record), tying Oliver Levant (2000-03).
This spring has served as a comeback for Perez, who moved from his native Cuba to Miami when he was 10 and blossomed into one of the state’s top junior players. He signed with the Gators in 2016 and has played an integral role in the success and culture that Shelton has built in his tenure.
Perez did not play during the fall season after suffering a wrist injury that required surgery in December. He missed six months – a period that he planned to play in professional tournaments prior to the injury – before returning to UF and resuming his college career in January.
Much like Saturday’s win, Perez said the road back was never a stroll in the park.
“I just kept working and kept working,” he said. “It’s good to be playing a lot better now and hopefully I can make an impact on the team in the next round.”
Shelton was asked to offer perspective on what Perez has meant to the program. In a fitting metaphor about 90 minutes prior to the running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Shelton left no doubt about Perez’s importance.
“I wish he had three or four more years left,” Shelton said. “When we recruited Alfredo, we knew that he was a serious talent. We knew that he had physical gifts. We knew that he had a competitive spirit that was larger than life. We knew that we were going to be getting somebody that had tremendous upside and just had all the tools to be something special.
“We’ve always said he’s a horse, that he’s a thoroughbred. A guy that can take it to a whole nother level. Not a lot of guys can do that. He’s that type of racehorse.”
Unlike what transpired at Churchill Downs early Saturday evening, there was no uncertainty whether Perez had won. He pumped his fist and was greeted by teammates and coaches. They were moving on to the next round.
No replays needed.
Scott Carter joined the UAA in 2010, returning to the campus where he earned a journalism degree. Prior to that, he spent the majority of his newspaper career at The Tampa Tribune, where he covered the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida State, USF and horse racing over that span.