Andrade Adding to Wins Record as Gators Roll into Postseason

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The No. 1-seeded Florida men’s tennis team had rolled through its first five matches of the 2021 NCAA Tournament and reached the championship round for the first time in program history. In dispatching of South Alabama, South Florida, 16th-seeded Illinois, eighth-seeded Texas A&M and fourth-seeded Texas, respectfully, the Gators had lost just two of 20 matches and would face No. 2 Baylor in the title round.

Andy Andrade

In the locker room before taking the courts at the USTA National Campus for the title match, Coach Bryan Shelton and his staff were going through their normal pre-match routine. Part pep talk, part checklist. “Here’s what to expect. … OK, this is where we’ll be. … The match will be tight regardless who wins doubles. … It’ll be up to respond the first 20 minutes of singles to set the tone. ”

One by one, Shelton made his points. Until Andy Andrade interrupted to make one of his own.

“Coach,” Andrade said, staring straight into Shelton’s eyes. “We got this.”

It was received exactly the way it was intended; as a respectful hint that nothing more needed to be said.

“He was telling me they were ready,” Shelton said. “And they were.”

The Gators proceeded to go out, lose the doubles point, then completely overwhelm the Bears in singles on the way to a 4-1 rout that claimed the first national crown in the program’s 89 years. In the middle of the dismantling was Andrade, the senior Ecuadorian, who shook off a close first set against Sven Lah at No. 3 singles and vanished his Bears counterpart into the Central Florida night with a 7-6 (8-6), 6 -0 pounding that gave Andrade a perfect 5-0 singles mark (with one unfinished match) in the NCAA Tournament.

Normal circumstances would have sent Andrade out of his college career on a spectacular high note, but COVID offered a chance to come back for another season of eligibility – and what a season it has been. On Sunday, the Gators completed a sweep of their Southeastern Conference slate and third straight league crown by defeating No. 21 Texas A&M on “Senior Day,” with Andrade winning his seventh consecutive singles match to improve to 25-8 on the season heading into Friday’s SEC Championships, where No. 3-ranked and top-seeded Florida (20-2), after a pair of bye days, will face ninth-seeded LSU (16-10) in the quarterfinals at Athens, Ga.

The league tournament will serve as a warmup to the 2022 NCAA Championships, which begins May 6 at home venues around the country.

“I really think I’m playing the best tennis of my career, right now,” Andrade said.

For his “Senior Day” sendoff last weekend, Andy Andradewhose parents could not make the match, posed for photos with head coach Bryan Shelton (right) and associate head coach Tanner Stump (left), as well Kate Harte, the team’s director of tennis operations. “She She’s been like a second mom to me since I’ve been here.”

What Andrade has done of late, however, only tells part of his story. On Feb. 19, Andrade defeated Virginia’s Bar Botzer in straight sets for his 121st victory at Florida, breaking the career mark of 120 set by Justin O’Neal from 1997-2000. That milestone took place more than two months ago, with Andrade piling on to his all-time victory total, which now stands at 132, with the best and most pivotal part of the season still to come.

Notes: Andrade also has 66 career wins in doubles, giving him 198 total victories, with only three other players in program history posting 200 combined for their careers.

CHARTING THE GATORS
Florida’s all-time leaders in career singles victories

Singles wins Player Years
132 Andy Andrade 2017-present
120 Justin O’Neal 1997-2000
117 Jeff Morrison 1998-2000
112 Mark Merklein 1991-94
110 Alexandre Lacroix 2008-11
Greg Ouellette 2005-08

* Current UF fifth-year Duarte Vale (2017-present) is at 108 career wins and could join this list as soon as Friday

“I knew he was going to win a lot of matches, but to be able to do it primarily from the middle part of our lineup and against the competition we face year in and year out has been so impressive,” Shelton said of Andrade, who has played every match at No. 4 this season after spending most of 2021 playing at No. 3. “He’s been like a good wine, just gotten better with time. He continues to get a little sharper as we play more and compete more . He’s just a player. Some guys I call ‘hitters.’ They come out there and hit the ball and look like a million bucks, but when we say, ‘OK, it’s time to play. We’re not drilling anymore,’ that’s when Andy lights up. He has the instincts of a player, not a hitter. ”

Always has, but those instincts just needed coaching and experience to back them up.

The 2017 season was Shelton’s fifth at Florida and he believed the Gators were on the brink of knocking on the national door. They were coming off the first Elite Eight appearance in eight years and had an incoming three-man freshman class led by a duo, Duarte Vale and Oliver Crawford, who had been top-10 world-ranked junior players. The third member of the class was Andrade, out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., And with a resume far-less accomplished than his classmates di lui.

“I was average, I would say.” That’s how Andrade remembered it.

That wasn’t Shelton’s take, however. Yes, the overwhelming attention, both locally and nationally, was on Vale and Crawford – and rightfully so. They’d played in Grand Slam events as juniors. Shelton, though, envisioned three rookie standouts (and future superstars), not just two. He told everyone who would listen not to sleep on Andrade.

UF coach Bryan Shelton nicked named Andy Andrade “Nice Hands,” a testament to his skillful finesse game.

“I saw amazing talent. I saw skill with the hands and touch and feel, things that are hard to teach but are innate with some players. He had a lot of those gifts,” Shelton recalled. “He was a little volatile emotionally – that Latin blood in him, and all – which I was absolutely loving in the team environment and the pressure. You want guys who can express themselves and release the pressure. We just needed to help him with some fundamental things to make him a little more stable day in and day out. I truly believed he could win a lot of matches for the Gators. ”

Andrade grinned when asked about his early UF days. His priorities of lui weren’t in order, he admitted, but how many college freshman can say they are?

“I didn’t know what was important and what was not, and my time management was not the best,” he said. “The 18-year-old version of me didn’t know what was going on in the world, but I’ve grown up so much since then. As a player, a person and a friend – and someone who appreciates his family a lot more. ”

His tennis grew commensurately, as well. The early Andrade’s self-image wasn’t great, so Shelton and his coaches di lui built him up and honed in the unique skills that separated Andrade from his two higher-ranked classmates. Shelton convinced Andrade that not having a power game was a good thing.

“He always thought, ‘I’m so different,’ like he had spots or a glowing red nose like Rudolph,” Shelton laughed. “We told him, ‘No, you’re special.’ Being different in our sport is a good thing because it catches a lot of people off guard. ”

And away they went.

While Vale, Crawford and other teammates banged away from the baseline, Andrade earned the nickname “Nice Hands” through a deft finesse game. Not that he couldn’t hit the ball hard, it just wasn’t his strength di lui. He didn’t have to be, either.

Instead, he used instincts to make opponents uncomfortable and keep them off balance. Shelton locked in on Andrade’s ability to read players’ body language to anticipate shots.

Andy Andrade will take a seven-game winning streak in singles (and eight-game streak with doubles partner Mattias Siimar) into the SEC Championships.

“Sometimes, he’s just miles ahead of people,” Shelton said. “I call it a sixth sense. He had a gift for anticipation, just a great mind for the game.”

And with it a chance – thanks to the rest of his freebie COVID year – to put the career victory record in a different stratosphere. For perspective’s sake, when’s the next time a UF player is going to average more than 35 matches a season (much less 26 wins) over a five-year career?

But Andrade, currently on runs of seven straight singles and eight straight doubles victories alongside Michigan grad-transfer Mattias Siimar, is quick to point out his personal wins are not what this is about. Not even close.

Nor is this about his final month as a Gator. He’s vowed not to get too deep or philosophical about (not yet, at least), though he expects the end will hit him like a ton of orange-and-blue bricks.

The goal, obviously, is much bigger. Far more ambitious.

“We’ve made history here, but what matters most is making more history for this program – and keep on making it,” said Andrade, whose incredible year also will include graduating next month with his mother, father and several other family members in the house. “It’s important to me to help give back to the coaches for all they’ve done for me, for this team, and just keep trying to be successful. I mean, being the first team win an NCAA championship was special, but back- to-back sounds great. ”

So does another “We got this” moment.

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