The Florida Gators women’s tennis team won its seventh national title in program history and fourth under coach Roland Thornqvist with a 4-1 win over Stanford on Tuesday night. After the celebration ended, the euphoria set in and the trophy was hoisted, Thornqvist took the time to talk with SEC Country about winning the national championship. Here is what he had to say.
What were the emotions like after you saw Ingrid Neel clinch the match?
“I mean, it’s just joy, relief, I don’t even know. There’s 10 different kinds of emotions at the same time. I’m super proud of them. They’re an unbelievable bunch. I’m super happy for our seniors who have put in so much work and finally get the big one.”
That led me to my next question. Just how much did this senior class — Kourtney Keegan, Belinda Woolcock and Spencer Liang — mean to this program and how much have you seen them grow since their freshman year?
“Obviously they’ve changed a lot. They’ve matured as people. They’re first-class people and as players, they improved every year. You know, the last two years, we all felt that we had really good teams and we had just fallen short in this tournament with a quarterfinal and Round of 16 [exit]. It was sort of a mission for them to go all the way this year, and I’m really happy that they were able to do it because if any senior class deserves it, this one would be it.”
Did you ever think you would see Keegan — or any player for that matter — win a singles match 6-0, 6-0 in the NCAA Championship match?
“No. No. No. And against a player who had a fantastic record over the course of the season as well. No. No is the answer to that. It was a fantastic performance from start to finish.”
You haven’t been shy this year about the team’s expectations. You had one of your deepest teams ever. You knew the team was talented, but was there a moment where you and the team truly thought a national title was a possibility?
“You know what? I think we all figured we had a chance from the start of the year that we were going to be one of the teams with a chance to do it. But with our new scoring format, that’s a great equalizer. You’re not going to have many unseeded teams anymore. When we took a couple of losses, it’s very important to compartmentalize that and learn from it and I think this team was able to do it. We lost to Vanderbilt in the finals of the SEC Tournament, and I think our players thought we let that one slip, but it really motivated us greatly in the semifinals [against Vanderbilt on Monday night]. Obviously [Tuesday], you don’t need any motivation when you’re playing for the big one. I’m just happy that the dreams and the vision of a championship that this team had in August was able to come to fruition.”
Two years ago, you lose to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals. Last year, you lose to Stanford in the Round of 16. Is there any sense of redemption around the team knowing you had to beat both of them in the last two matches to win the national championship?
“It makes it even more special. I honestly feel that. Those two programs over the last few years have been sort of the two best teams in this event. This is my sixth final and in five of these six finals, I’ve played Stanford. It just feels right to see the Cardinal on the other side of the fence in this big moment.”
What can you say about Ingrid Neel’s performance? She’s the only freshman on the team and she once again came up in a big situation to clinch the match against Stanford’s Taylor Davidson.
“I think we saw pretty quickly in her tenure here, even as early as the beginning of February, that she was a real gamer. Obviously she was the one who clinched the indoor title for us in February, but this stage is bigger. This is the big one. She beat probably the best competitor in college tennis for us to win the national championship. It just shows how tough she is, and frankly she did not play a great first set but was able to find her form in the second. In the third, we just let her go and she was outstanding.”
How hard is it for a freshman to rebound on the big stage the way Neel did?
“Well, you just don’t see it honestly, especially against a player like Taylor. Taylor has clinched national championships and Taylor was the one that beat us last year in the Round of 16 last year. She’s super tough, so for a freshman to beat a senior like that, it’s really unheard of. But our freshman is special. She showed that early on this semester and obviously [Tuesday] you saw a perfect example of that.”
You won the team title. Now most of your players are competing for individual national titles. How does the mindset shift the rest of the way?
“That can be really tricky obviously. Some of our players are exhausted at this point. It’s going to be their event. Usually what happens, as an athlete, if you can find a way to battle through [the first round], it’s the hardest one. After that, you’re back in the tournament mode again. But to come down from this tournament high can be really tricky. We’re going to let them sleep in, rest their bodies and see if we have any bullets left.”