“Old Soul” Sam – Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Back in January, a few days before the Florida men’s tennis team opened the 2022 season and defense of its first national championship, senior Sam Riffice went to Bryan Shelton and asked the UF coach about the opening-weekend travel itinerary that had the top-ranked Gators playing road matches at No. 5 Texas Christian on a Friday and No. 3 Texas on Sunday. Specifically, Riffice wanted to know if the team would be driving from Fort Worth to Austin immediately after the game or making the trip first thing Saturday morning.

Shelton wasn’t sure why it mattered, until Riffice explained he wanted to use the day between matches to take the LSAT in Austin that morning.

Seriously.

Coach Bryan Shelton

“The guy is what some would call an ‘old soul,'” Shelton said in recalling the story.

At just 22, Riffice is very much in his physical prime, but yes, he is a quintessential example of, at heart, being mature beyond his years. Literally. Because speaking of his heart di lui, it’s now officially spoken for after Riffice, who graduated from UF last month, got engaged two weeks ago to his lifelong sweetheart, former tennis professional CiCi Bellis, which has made for a very eventful wind-down to his college career.

Then there’s Riffice’s, which also checks in pretty high in the pecking order and is pretty spectacular, too.

Riffice, ranked 28th in the country, is a combined 42-9 in dual singles the last two seasons, with all but eight of those coming at No. 2. After winning his team match in the NCAA finals against top-seeded Baylor – part of UF’s 4-1 victory for the national championship – Riffice blew through the NCAA singles draw to claim just the third individual title in program history, doing so about 10 minutes from his family’s home in Lake Nona. That crown got him a wild-card draw into the 2021 US Open later in the summer.

In 2022, Riffice rebounded from a slow start due to a back injury and rediscovered his game just in time for Southeastern Conference play, where he went a perfect 12-0 in singles competition, not to mention unbeaten in his last five doubles matches paired with sophomore Ben Sheltonthe nation’s No. 2-ranked collegiate player.

So, to review: When the second-seeded Gators (25-2) take on 15-seed North Carolina (18-8) in Friday’s NCAA Super Regional, Riffice will take the court at the Ring Complex for the final time as a reigning national champion in both singles and doubles, with a fresh degree in political science (plus a certificate in international relationships), a recently claimed fiancé in the stands, and a pro career on the horizon.

“I’ve been very blessed,” Riffice said this week. “I could not ask for a better college experience.”

The doubles duo of Ben Shelton (left) and Sam Riffice (right) has helped the Gators win 20 consecutive doubles points this season.

Maybe so, but check back in a couple weeks, because the Florida, with 20 consecutive match victories by an aggregate score of 105-19, look like the odds-on favorite to win a second straight NCAA title next week in Champaign, Ill. , what with the nation’s deepest, most talented and experienced roster. UF has four fifth-year seniors playing in its six singles holes, which actually makes Riffice the second-youngest in the lineup.

But he’s the oldest soul of the bunch.

Shelton let Riffice take that LSAT, by the way.

“Who does that? Not a guy who won the NCAA championship. Not one of the best players in college tennis who has a pro career in front of him, and then comes back and gets engaged,” said Shelton, the overseeer of a program that posted a team-wide GPA of 3.79 during the spring semester. “He has been a captain for us since he was a freshman. All four years. You could just see it from the start. The guy is a leader. The guy is going to do this all the time and this is always going to be the right thing. ”

Sam Riffice and fiance CiCi Bellis

The Riffice regimen / routine is rooted in a disciplined, goal-oriented approach to… well… everything. For him, it’s basically been a lifestyle since taking up tennis as a young boy in Sacramento, Calif. It was in Northern California that he met Bellis. They were both eight years old and tracked a similar youth and junior tennis path, both moving to Boca Raton, Fla., To train at the USTA national center and playing in the same tournaments. They both eventually moved to Lake Nona when the center opened its new campus.

Along the way, Bellis rocketed to the world’s No. 1 juniors in 2014 and turned pro two years later at 17, while Riffice pursued the collegiate path. Bellis amassed $ 1.4 million of prize money on tour before a serious arm injury that required five surgeries forced her into retirement in January of 2022. The same time Riffice and the Gators were embarking on their title defense.

A couple weeks ago, the two took the dog for their morning walk around the neighborhood lake in Orlando. That’s when Riffice popped the question. He had been planning the moment for some time – a big goal, so of course he had – with and likened the pressure of the moment to staring down his Baylor foe in the NCAA championship match last year or that national singles final.

But another goal was in the books.

“As any athlete, I think you have to always set goals,” he said. “You can’t just go out and train and go play tournaments and not think about things. You have to have goals. Short-term goals, long-term goals. It gives you something to work for; the extra motivation, knowing where you are. If you fall short of those goals, you know what you have to work on. If you achieve your goals, you set higher goals. “

Sometimes, they’re adjusted on the fly. Last May, after winning the NCAA singles, Riffice was at a life’s crossroad and had a decision to make regarding his future of him. He was a hot commodity as a national champion and most in the tennis world figured he was turning pro. Why wouldn’t he?

“We were at the US Open and all the Federation people and USTA people were all saying, ‘What are you telling Sam? He’s turning pro, right? I told them all it was going to be Sam’s choice,” Shelton recalled. “And I told him from the beginning not to worry about team, and to make the best choice for himself.”

Riffice, meanwhile, had a veteran’s perspective of his situation. He’d gotten hot and played great for five matches at NCAAs, but he was going to see how he responded. It just so happened that a hip injury led to a nagging back injury later in the summer and he just was not at his best. Not long after that, Riffice let Shelton know he was coming back not just to get healthy but with – of course – bigger goals.

“He told me he wanted to graduate and win another natty,” Shelton said.

First he had to rehab throughout the fall season in an effort to be ready for the start of the ’22 season. More goals set, more goals attained.

“He did everything we asked of him, but that wasn’t a surprise,” team trainer Beca Floyd said. “That’s Sam. He always does what he supposed to do. He’s the best.”

2021 NCAA singles champion Sam Riffice.

By December, Riffice’s body was full go, but his tennis was a little rusty. He worked back in match-day shape, though, while knocking out his final graduation requirements. He walked across the podium to that degree last month.

Another big goal down, another big one to go.

Come what may over the next couple weeks, the Riffice plan is to finish up his LSAT requirements, then turn pro and see what happens over the next two years. Yes, two years.

“I have certain milestones in mind,” Riffice said. “If I don’t hit those milestones and I don’t believe they’re feasible, then I’ll go to law school.”

And get married, of course. Asked about a potential date, Riffice smiled and said he had no say in that. Consider that a goal out of his control of him.

A rare one.

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