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    SEC 40/40: Florida Women’s Tennis

    By: Sean Cartell
    Twitter: @SEC_Sean
    SEC Digital Network

    GAINESVILLE, Fla. – That Andy Brandi became the head coach of the University of Florida women’s tennis team was by chance. That he built it into one of the most impressive tennis dynasties in collegiate history certainly was not.

    It was the summer of 1984 and Brandi was looking for a change.

    Since 1972, he had served as a camp director, head pro and private pro for more than 12 different clubs and academies, and has spend a countless amount of time traveling the world. Spending so much time away from his wife Nancy and young son Chris, who followed in his father’s footsteps for a time as the assistant director of tennis at Baylor, was taking its toll.

    “It’s a funny story,” Brandi said. “I had been traveling full time on the women’s professional tour and had been away from my family for 15 weeks. When I came back to the U.S., I ran into a UF tennis alumna named Tori Baxter. I told her I had been wanting to get out of what I was doing; I said that maybe I wanted to coach women’s college tennis. That week, she told me, Florida was interviewing people for their job. She said she would make a call and get me an interview.”

    Florida saw something special in Brandi and named him the school’s women’s tennis coach in August 1984.

    For Brandi, it would initially be a bit of a learning curve.

    “To be candid, I had never been involved in college tennis other than playing college tennis,” said Brandi, who lettered at Trinity [Texas] University in the early 1970s. “For me, it was a process of getting to know the girls who were there, getting to know the system and getting to know other programs. Once I had a good idea of where we were, I knew where we needed to go. I realized that we would need to put in a lot of time, hard work and effort to get to the level we wanted to be at.”

    What Brandi built was a program that would stand the test of time.

    After leading the Gators to three NCAA Championships (1992, 1996 and 1998), six undefeated regular seasons and 14 Southeastern Conference titles, Brandi passed the torch to Roland Thornqvist following the 2001 season.

    Brandi’s successor has continued the tradition of excellence, directing Florida to three NCAA Championships, including back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.

    According to Stephanie Nickitas, who won back-to-back NCAA doubles titles for the Gators in 1996 and 1997, Florida’s consistency of winning national championships in three different decades has much to do with the culture of the school’s athletics department.

    “I think it just has to do with the aura of everything going on at UF,” said Nickitas, now the head women’s tennis coach at the University of Central Florida. “I think a lot of it comes from [athletics director] Jeremy Foley’s leadership from him starting out as a young guy in the athletic department and working his way up. It’s just that culture of excellence. There is a big difference in what you see at Florida and at a lot of other schools. They have just maintained that for years.”

    *****

    Brandi quickly learned that if he was going to build the powerhouse program he envisioned at Florida, he was going to have to consistently attract the nation’s top players to his program.

    “You’re only as good as your horses,” Brandi said. “You might be the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have the best players, you won’t get to the top.”

    Brandi had a strong reputation from his work with elite tennis players that helped him begin to draw top-level talent to Gainesville. Once he began to do that, Florida became a destination school for the nation’s finest tennis players.

    “It was a two-fold reason [why top players came to Florida],” Brandi said. “My background in professional tennis was such that I had a very good track record on the WTA circuit and, secondly, was landing my first big recruit, Shaun Stafford. Once she came, I think the other players realized that maybe there was something there to look at. Players started considering and coming to Florida.”

    Stafford advanced to the individual singles finals of the NCAA Tournament in 1987 before winning the event as a sophomore in 1988. That year, the Gators finished as the national runner-up and Stafford’s win in the NCAA singles final came against Florida teammate Halle Cioffi. She earned the 1988 Honda Sports award as the most outstanding collegiate women’s tennis player in the country.

    That was just the beginning.

    During his tenure, Brandi coached his student-athletes to 64 All-America honors, 100 All-SEC designations and 53 SEC academic honor roll nods. More impressively, every freshman during Brandi’s career who played four seasons at Florida, played for the national title, was a part of at least three SEC Championships and earned All-SEC honors during the course of their careers.

    Brandi is swift to credit the talented players he coached for the program’s success.

    “I think it’s a tribute to the girls,” Brandi said. “It’s a tribute to their work-ethic, dedication and the fact that they were such good competitors. It didn’t matter what level or what match they were playing, they wanted to play their best tennis and get the job done.”

    According to Nickitas, the environment Brandi created around his program was a major reason for Florida’s accomplishments.

    “When you stepped in as a freshman, you kind of already knew what was established,” Nickitas said. “It came from Andy’s leadership and work-ethic. Everybody just acquired a level of discipline higher than most other teams in the country. We probably worked harder than any other team in the country at that time. It came from Andy establishing that culture and players buying into it for years.”

    *****

    Support.

    It’s essential to success, but talking to those around the Florida women’s tennis program, they believe the type of success that the Gators receive is among the most unique in the country.

    It came from the community and the administration.

    “You look at the school itself and it’s a great academic institution where student-athletes can come get a quality education,” Brandi said. “The support that Jeremy Foley gave every program there and the opportunity he gives every program there to succeed is unmatched anywhere else. The community also rallied behind our program to give it opportunities it wouldn’t otherwise have had. One name that comes to mind is Dr. Alfred Ring, who donated generously to be able to build a new facility, new indoor courts and anything that we needed.”

    Never was that support on display more than at the team’s home matches. Playing in front of the Gator faithful at Ring Tennis Complex is an experience that Nickitas will never forget.

    “Since I’ve been coaching college tennis, I’ve had the opportunity to see many different places and programs across the country, and their support level,” Nickitas said. “I have to say that playing for the Gators, that’s the most support I’ve ever seen across the country. The way the Gator boosters and the community come together to support the team is really amazing. And you also have support from other athletes and administrative support – you see administrators watching matches all the time and I think that’s really important for the success of the program. Being from Florida and being able to have friends and family at the matches was also a great support system.”

    Brandi also has many fond memories during that time, including one of a legendary football coach.

    “I can remember one time when we played Stanford during the Steve Spurrier era at Florida,” Brandi said. “The match was scheduled for 2 p.m. and it rained, so they moved it to 4 p.m. Coach Spurrier had one of his spring practices scheduled for 4 and he cancelled practice and brought all of the football players to our match. Stanford was No. 1 and we were No. 2 and we played in front of 1,500 people. Just the support of all the people and how they shared in the excitement of our success was wonderful.”

    Florida’s home court has been the site of some impressive winning streaks. Under Brandi’s tenure, the Gators compiled an impressive stream of 71 consecutive regular-season home victories from 1994-2001. Thornqvist has taken that a step further. Dating back to April of 2002, the Gators have won 112 consecutive regular-season home matches and haven’t fallen at home in any match since the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

    “We love playing at home because the fans are great,” Thornqvist said. “We like it when it’s hot and humid. We have prided ourselves on being a physical team each and every year so that we can go the distance if matches go long. All things come into play when you play in Gainesville. The streaks are never something that we discuss. The quickest way to break a streak is to make it an issue in the locker room. We try really hard to focus on the things we can control that allow us the best possible chance to win.”

    *****

    Two of Brandi’s finest years came in 1996 and 1998, when he led the Gators to undefeated national championship seasons. The Gators were 31-0 in 1996 and 27-0 in 1998 and the team’s success sure wasn’t due to a lack of competition.

    “If you want to be the best, you have to play against the best,” Brandi said. “I think some of the hiccups we had early on in my career in the NCAA Finals were because maybe we weren’t contested as much during the season as we really needed to be in order to handle a tough match at the end. It created a lot of panic from our standpoint because we weren’t used to being challenged in matches until the bitter end. Once we started playing those teams regularly, we were more comfortable and understood what to do and how to do it. I think that’s part of the reason for our success.”

    Nickitas was a witness to the team’s earliest heyday in the mid-1990s. She walked into one of the deepest and most talented teams in collegiate history as a freshman on the 1996 national championship squad, winning her first of two NCAA doubles titles as a rookie. The Gators were 120-3 (.976) during Nickitas’ career.

    “I think when you’re going through it, at the time, you’re not really thinking about it,” Nickitas said. “Looking back, you think ‘Wow, I really accomplished a lot and we had an amazing amount of wins compared to losses. When you’re doing it, you’re just taking it one match at a time and playing your hardest each match. We had just amazingly deep lineups from top to bottom. My freshman year was the best college tennis team I have ever seen. Jill [Craybas] was playing No. 1 and I was No. 6 and we had three strong doubles teams. Going through it, you just keep trucking and take care of business.”

    In 1996, Florida captured the triple crown, winning the NCAA team title, the NCAA individual singles title (Jill Craybas) and the NCAA individual doubles title (Nickitas and Dawn Buth), then becoming just the second team in NCAA history to accomplish that feat.

    “I think you have to look at that 1996 team as one of the greatest teams of all time,” Brandi said. “Winning the triple crown and doing so at FSU that year.”

    By 1999, Brandi had become the fastest coach to reach 400 career victories, doing so in his 15th season with the Gators. When the 2001 season concluded, Brandi had racked up 460 career victories, compared to just 43 losses. He had won nearly 92 percent of his matches while leading Florida.

     It was again time for a chance for Brandi. He had seemingly accomplished everything possible in the world of collegiate tennis and wanted to devote more time to coaching future professionals. On May 29, 2001, he resigned his position to become the Director of Coaching for IMG Academies.

    “My pleasure in being the coach at Florida was not only to help the players be successful at the collegiate level, but also to develop some of those girls into successful pros,” Brandi said. “As time went on, it became more and more difficult to do that. I had a decision whether I wanted to be a college coach or a developmental coach, and I chose to be a developmental coach. I stepped away from it with a lot of comfort because I had left the cupboards full as far as players and future success of the program. They just needed to find the right person to step in and follow that tradition.”

    *****

    Following a legend is often a difficult task. Seemingly, few coaches live up to the expectation for excellence set by their predecessor. Whomever was to follow Brandi would have to be a special coach.

    The Gators found that person in Thornqvist, who had just completed his third season as the head coach at North Carolina, his alma mater. He had also spent two seasons as the head coach at Kansas after a stint as the men’s assistant coach with the Tar Heels.

    Thornqvist wasn’t intimidated by how high Brandi had set the bar; he embraced the challenge.

    “I never really worried about external pressure,” Thornqvist said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I knew that Jeremy Foley would give us everything we needed to be successful and, because of that, we should be able to be competitive. If you recruit the best players every year, then ultimately you have a chance to make a continuous run each and every year towards the SEC and NCAA Championship.”

    He was sold on the job by all the factors that Brandi had been years before him.

    “Honestly, it was everything about the job,” Thornqvist said. “I like the fact that people care. Jeremy Foley was very instrumental – he cares about each and every sport the same. Even though football is a very important part of our athletic department, it’s not the only thing in town. People care about all sports. What Andy Brandi did during his tenure made women’s tennis an integral part of the athletic department.”

    What helped more than anything was that Thornqvist’s personality was the perfect fit for the championship culture that had long been established in Gainesville.

    “With the attention that our community pays to a sport like women’s tennis in Gainesville, our players and our staff feel like we are important and people do care,” Thornqvist said. “That can lead to added pressure. People want you to be good and if you don’t manage that well, it could be taxing. Coaching at Florida is not for the underdog. You have to be comfortable in a leading role if you want to have a long tenure. You have to be willing to carry that bulls eye on your back each and every time. If you manage that, you will be successful because Florida gives you an opportunity to be the best in every sport.”

    Any doubt about Thornqvist’s abilities was immediately erased during his first two seasons with the Gators. In his inaugural campaign, Florida posted a 24-2 overall record and finished as the national runner-up. A year later, he led the Gators to a 31-2 mark, an SEC Championship and the program’s fourth NCAA Championship.

    “That was very important for us,” Thornqvist said. “I was only 31 when I took the job and [associate head coach] Dave [Balogh] was 26. A lot of people in the very beginning wondered if we could continue the success Andy Brandi had. We jumped in there head first and had a great rapport with the first group. Having players like Zerene Reyes and Alexis Gordon on board was key. That all really gave us some credibility.”

    Thornqvist knew, just as Brandi did years before, that the main component of a top-notch program was having elite caliber athletes.

    “It would have been very difficult to continue the run if we didn’t have marquee players on our team,” Thornqvist said. “Over the course of my 11 years, we’ve had four or five No. 1-ranked college players. You need to have players like that, at least every now and then, because it will ultimately attract more marquee players when you recruit. Not only have we had great players, but they have been good people who can help us recruit other great players. We’ve had people who have cared about Florida, not just their own tennis game. We’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”

    *****

    If the mid-1990s were one golden era of Florida tennis, the second golden era is upon us.

    After battling through adversity and a lack of depth in 2009 (the Gators still went 16-10 and advanced to the NCAA Round of 16), Florida has ascended back to the top position in women’s collegiate tennis.

    The Gators have made three consecutive trips to the NCAA Finals and have accumulated an impressive 87-5 (.946) record during that span. Florida has won back-to-back NCAA team titles, tying Thornqvist with Brandi at three career national championships.

    Thornqvist’s teams have evolved over the years and his last two championship teams have been fueled by player-driven motivation.

    “Young players have changed just in the 12 years I’ve been here at Florida,” Thornqvist said. “What we’ve tried to do over time is to promote ownership and get players in our program who are motivated on their own. We can sort of facilitate their growth as athletes. That’s the ultimate way to coach.  You have to adjust your style to maximize performance. What we try to do is teach our players what it takes to be the best they can be and facilitate their journey.”

    The past several years have also been among the most successful in the University of Florida’s athletics history. Whether it’s SEC Championships, NCAA Championships, the Olympics or even academic honors, UF student-athletes have prospered more than ever over the period of the last five years.

    “I tell our players all the time to sit down and look around when they go to training table and see who’s eating next to them,” Thornqvist said. “Twenty-one medals at the Olympics were current and former Gator athletes. It’s just amazing. Our players really feel like they’re part of an athletic atmosphere that is the best in the country and I hope they feel great pride.”

    *****

    The formula for the success of the Florida women’s tennis program has been rather simple: recruit great players, play the best teams, out-work the opposition and demand a culture of passion and dedication.

    The results have been extraordinary, as have the players who have passed through the program.

    “You have to have good players that will allow you to be successful, that’s the key,” Thornqvist said. “It’s very difficult to go and win at the highest level of the SEC if you don’t have good players. The SEC is the kind of league that if you win it, you have a chance to win the national championship. The bar is set very high and it all comes down to players. You have to do your due diligence to recruit not only great athletes, but good team players who fit what you’re trying to do. The players decide if you have a chance or not.”

    Even with the most recent two national championships, there is no time for Florida to rest on its accomplishments. If anything, it has made the Gators hungrier.

    “We don’t change a whole lot in what we do, whether we win a national championship or lose in the final four,” Thornqvist said. “We’re going to continue stressing the same things and continue to recruit the best players in the country and make them the best we can be. We see each year as its own entity. When you start thinking that your past contributions are somehow going to affect your future ability to win is greatly exaggerating its affect. We work hard each and every year.”

    From one legend to another, perhaps one of the greatest compliments the current coach can receive is that Brandi has been pleased with how Thornqvist has taken the Florida program into the next generation.

    “Roland has done a great job and built a lot of tradition and success in his own legacy,” Brandi said. “He had a lot of pressure coming in, but he was the right person. He has done a fantastic job.”

    Thornqvist has used the right mix of tradition and evolution to ensure that the Gators remain among the nation’s best.

    “I think Coach Brandi really started it, instilling a sense of pride, a level of work-ethic and a love for the game at Florida that when I got there was really important to continue,” Thornqvist said. “I want people to think of UF women’s tennis as the premier program in the country. If you love the game of tennis and want to be the best you can be, I want Florida to be the program model by which you can actually achieve that.”