By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
Florida advanced Saturday to the elite eight of the NCAA men’s tennis championships with a riveting 4-2 decision over Tennessee in the NCAA Round of 16 at the Varsity Courts.
Next up, No. 3 seed Florida (24-3) will face No. 6 seed Baylor in the NCAA quarterfinals in Orlando (Lake Nona) May 16.
“That was something,” UF coach Bryan Shelton said. “I’ve been at this for 20 years, and I can hardly remember a match that had more in it as far as excitement, drama, injuries – so many things that were going on in that match.
“I’m just really proud of our team. It was a great, great effort, and our fans were amazing, coming out in the heat to support us and push us through.”
The 14th-seeded Vols end their season at 22-8.
The Gators came out ready and won the doubles point, getting wins at No. 3 from Andy Andrade-Duarte Vale and at No. 1 from Johannes Ingildsen-McClain Kessler. That point turned out to be pivotal the way things played out.
“We felt like if we could somehow win at No. 1 doubles, that could be something that would take their heart away early in the match,” Shelton noted. “It comes down to number one doubles and they’re down a break, and they find a way to come back and win that doubles point for us. We thought that was huge.”
Tennessee’s Adam Walton knotted things at 1-all with a 6-3, 6-1 win at No. 2 singles, but UF answered with wins at No. 4 singles from Andy Andrade and at No. 3 from Alfredo Perez to move within a point of victory at 3-1.
The Vols’ Martim Prata trimmed the margin to 3-2 with a 3-6, 7-6, 6-2 win at No. 6, but with the Vols’ Timo Stodder and UF’s Oliver Crawford dead even at No. 1 at 4-all in the third set, it was time for Vale to do his thing.
He roared from behind to post a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 win at No. 5 to close out the Vols, 4-2, winning the third-set tiebreaker 10-8.
When he saw the ball go out of bounds on the last point, Vale just collapsed on the court and lay there for several moments before his teammates mobbed him.
“When it’s that late in the match, you kind of just let it go because it happens to the best players in the world,” Vale said. “What can you do better on the next point? At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. You can’t guarantee a win against any player, but you can just guarantee that you respond the right way. You get hyped when you need to, and that’s just what I was trying to do.”
Shelton credited Vale for his toughness.
“Overall it was a great team win,” Shelton said. “For Duarte to have what it took there at the end to get the win for us and move us on when things were starting to look a a little bit bleak, he never quit believing or just going out there and giving his very best. That’s kind of the guy he is as a human being, as a person and as a tennis player. We call him ‘The Beast’ because he just keeps coming after you.
“Tennessee, like it or not, they bring it. They bring the fight to you and continue to fight and continue to punch. Give those guys a lot of credit on their season. That team is definitely moving in the right direction. We just happen to be heading to Orlando and they don’t.”