UF men’s tennis team captain Sam Riffice talks about his journey to UF, his TWO national tennis championships and the big decision he will soon be forced to make.
Imagine being a freshman on your first day at a school as big and prestigious as the University of Florida. Intimidating, overwhelming, maybe a little bit scary.
Now, imagine going to your first class. And it is your first in-person class since you were in fifth grade.
“It was an 8 a.m. class and I was just looking around,” says Sam Riffice (4 PoliSci). “It was a weird feeling.”
Riffice adjusted. Boy, did he adjust.
And now, he’s like a lot of students who have been through three years at UF. Except he has a couple of national championships in tennis.
Not only did he help the Gator men’s tennis team win its first-ever team championship, he turned around and won the national singles championship a few days later in Lake Nona.
His story is not atypical for tennis prodigies, but it is different from how most young men experience their formative years.
Riffice started playing at Johnson Ranch Racquet Club in Rosedale, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. His mother, Lori, taught tennis there and got him started in the sport.
“She’s the sole reason I am where I am in tennis,” he says.
At age 13, he moved to Boca Raton where he could train at the US Tennis Association complex while taking classes through Florida Virtual School. He lived in the USTA dorms, and one might think it was difficult to leave your family behind. Think about being a teenager on your own.
But it was no big deal for one reason.
He loved the sport.
He lived the sport.
“I really loved tennis, so it was the best place to be if you really loved tennis,” he says. “I wasn’t super homesick because I was around a bunch of guys I looked up to and played a lot of tennis.”
Two years later his mother moved to Boca, and when his father retired the family moved to Orlando near the USTA National Campus. He kept making his mark on the tennis courts, playing in Junior Grand Slam events, and eventually he was one of the top recruits in the nation.
Then, it was time to pick a college.
“I truly believed the coaching staff at Florida was the best in country,” says Riffice. “If I went to a school in California, I’d only be able to see my family and my girlfriend a couple of times a year.
“And the quality of the programs at Florida …. I think we’re second in the nation in national championships won for all sports,” he says. “And the academics were great as well.”
So, he chose Florida and Coach Bryan Shelton, who was building something special at UF. Riffice knew he needed to work on his service game and net game and felt Shelton was the best coach to get him ready for the next level.
“Coach Shelton is big on development,” Riffice says. “He has helped me so much.”
As a freshman, Riffice was elected one of the captains of the team.
“It showed a lot of faith for the coaches to put that on me,” he says.
Riffice kept getting better and better despite catching COVID-19 during the Thanksgiving break of his junior season.
“It was the only time I took a few days off from tennis,” he says. “I wasn’t too sick and I feel fortunate that it wasn’t too bad.”
As soon as he recovered, Riffice got back on the courts and helped Florida win the SEC regular season championship. Then came the national team tournament in May, where the Gators won the title for the first time in school history.
The celebration was short and sweet. Riffice and two of his teammates had qualified for the singles championships.
“I had no thoughts about winning both,” he says. “I had some matches during the team competition where I was kind of empty and my teammates picked me up. So, I wasn’t thinking about the singles. I had some tough matches early but pulled them out and then I caught my second wind.”
In the finals against Daniel Rodriques of South Carolina, he lost the first set. But as he had done several times during the team competition, he rallied to give Florida its third ever singles championship.
“I was fortunate in that it was there (in Lake Nona) so my whole family and my girlfriend could be there,” he said. “And my teammates and all of my coaches were in my ear.”
The historic double meant a family barbecue and the chance to catch up on some sleep. But three days later, he was back training for the summer events and for the opportunity to see if he was ready to try pro tennis.
In his first Challenger Series event at Lake Nona, he won again. Eventually, he’ll have a decision to make.
“That’s OK,” says Shelton. “Anytime Sam wins, that’s good for the Gators.”
Riffice will have plenty of opportunities this summer, including at the U.S Open, to measure himself. The NCAA singles champion gets an automatic berth in the main draw.
“It’s very exciting,” Riffice says. “I’ve played there in juniors and qualifying, but to be in the main draw in the men’s event is pretty special.”
And sometime this summer, he’ll have that choice to make – return for his senior year or start his professional career.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he says.
We’ve already seen how it’s going for a young man who’s having a special college career.