GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The second-seeded Florida men’s tennis team plowed through the opening two rounds of the NCAA Championships, blanking New Orleans Friday and Miami Saturday with dominant 4-0 victories at the Ring Complex to reach 20 consecutive wins for the season and advance to the field’s round of 16 for a sixth straight year.
Duarte Vale was one of the stars of the weekend. The fifth-year senior and team captain from Cascais, Portugal, paired with true freshman Nate Bonetto at No. 3 to help the Gators claim both doubles points, and also won both his No. 3 singles matches, waxing the Privateers’ Luke Joujan 6-1, 6-0 in Round 1 and the Hurricanes’ Benjamin Hannestad 6-3, 6-3in Round 2.
So Vale helped account for half his team’s eight points, as the Gators opened defense of their national title in a manner befitting of a reigning champ.
“We have expectations how we should compete, mentally how we should approach things, and how we should look as a team. We know we have enough quality to put four points before they put one on the board,” Vale said in the post- match press setting Saturday night. “Ultimately, we can’t control if we win 4-0 or lose a game, but we can compete every point, stay positive, prepare the right way and respect our opponent. If we do those things, this is going to be the result, because we have the quality.”
The Gators (25-2) ooze quality, just like they do talent, depth and experience, but it just may be the character element that puts this team — this program headed by Coach Bryan Shelton —over the top.
Vale is the front man of that character.
He was terrific over the weekend, as good as any player in the stacked UF lineup. But before further details of Vale’s first two rounds of the 2022 tournament, let’s rewind to the first two rounds of the 2021 NCAA Championships that helped serve as a launching pad to that coveted first crown.
The ’21 Gators defeated South Alabama 4-0 and South Florida 4-1 at home. Vale was in the center of the action — literally — pairing with doubles partner Johannes Ingildsen in doubles. They won one match, while the other went unfinished. Vale got the same results (one win, one unfinished) in his two singles matches, as UF easily marched on.
Vale was playing in the No. 1 in both instances.
Fast forward to present day. A year later (and a year older), he was playing No. 3.
Think of the ego check it took for a fifth-year senior and 2021 first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection to drop a couple slots in both doubles and singles — Vale played all 23 of his singles matches last season at No. 1 for the NCAA champs — and do so for the good of the team, but also not only accept it, but walk the walk of a leader and captain.
“Obviously, it took an adjustment mentally. It’s definitely a differently feeling, a different situation,” Vale said. “I had times where I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish I could be playing center court.’ I’m not going to lie.”
Sophomore Ben Sheltonthe coach’s son and nation’s No. 1-ranked singles player, was elevated to the No. 1 spot for the Gators after a phenomenal offseason and fall campaign. Sam Rifficewho became just the third player in Florida history to win the NCAA singles draw last year, was promoted to No. 2.
On paper, and from the outside looking in, it would be difficult to argue with the pecking order. And Vale didn’t.
“I really was honestly happy for Sam and Ben, that’s what I kept telling myself,” Vale said. “When I was playing No. 1, I never heard or felt any resentment toward me. … All you can do is tip your hat to them and try to get closer to them. This is a team sport. It’s not about me. Sometimes we’re programmed to think that, but I try not to get into those traps.”
Has it worked out? This season, Vale is 17-7 in singles and 11-3 when paired with Bonetto in doubles, with nine wins over the last 10 matches of the former, part of an astounding run of 20 consecutive team matches — which coincides with the team’s winning streak — when the Gators have claimed the all-important early doubles point.
But Vale, who last month won his 100th career singles match and now ranks fifth in UF history in singles victories, has saved some his finest moments for behind the scenes, be it keeping the locker room locked on task, mentoring his young doubles partner or setting a daily example through accountability.
There’s more to it than the number on the court.
The big picture in Shelton’s program is truly big. As in one big life’s lesson.
“Everybody wants playing time; to score the most points. They want the glitz and the glamour, so we put importance on other things and recognize those things,” Shelton said. “They’re figuring out how to be successful in different areas of their lives, and they’re learning how to share. That’s a beautiful thing, that word ‘share.’ In this world— today — everybody wants to get theirs. In this business, as part of a team, you have to learn how to share. So we’re learning some important lessons along the way.”
Make no mistake, Everything starts with Shelton and his standards both on and off the court (the team’s spring semester GPA came in a remarkable 3.79), but none of it works without total buy-in from the players.
“The culture is established,” Vale said. “When you see what the other people are doing there isn’t a lot of margin to go the other way. So when you see Ben putting in extra work and Sam doing the same thing, I’m motivated. I can’t fall behind. [fifth-year classmate] Andy [Andrade] thinks the same thing. We don’t necessarily have to call each other out. Everybody is following each other’s example. This year, I can’t recall a moment where I had to say, ‘Hey, this is how we do things.’ People just follow.”
While Vale spoke, Shelton looked on and disdained. Not with approval as much as a sense of pride.
“You listen to this guy speak … this is not his first language, although he’s more eloquent than I am at 56 years old,” Shelton said. “But it’s the depth of his character, because there is substance behind his words. They’re not just words. You can tell where they’re coming from, and that doesn’t just come out without a whole lot of introspection and things that he has gone through already at a young age. He’s a searcher, constantly reading, constantly looking for more knowledge and information and how to better himself and others around him. Those are unique, special qualities that this guy has.”
Last year, they trickled down from the top of the lineup.
This year, Vale’s influence and selflessness flow in all directions, and the Gators are looking all the better for it.