Emma Navarro knew this match would be different.
It was the NCAA Singles Championship match in Orlando in May 2021. Navarro, representing the Virginia Cavaliers, was taking on a familiar opponent, Miami’s Estela Perez-Somarriba, the defending champion. Perez-Somarriba had defeated Navarro in three sets in Coral Gables, FL, during Virginia and Miami’s dual match the previous month—which ended up being Navarro’s only loss of the NCAA season.
A similar fate describes Florida Gators player Sam Riffice’s NCAA Championship experience. Growing up in Orlando, Riffice lived very close to the USTA National Campus, training in the offseason on the bright blue hard courts. In the third round of the NCAA Championship, Riffice took on Illinois’ Siphosothando Montsi, who he had faced a week prior in a team event. Heading into the match, Riffice knew it was going to be challenging. But the Floridian beat Montsi 6-2, 6-0, playing what he calls “my best tennis of the year.”
“At that point, it was a turning point,” Riffice said. “I felt like I was playing at the highest level.”
For Navarro, after going down an early break 2-0 in the final to Perez-Somarriba, she rallied to win six of the next seven games, taking the first set 6-3. She dropped only one game after that, taking the second set 6-1, capturing Virginia’s second NCAA singles championship in program history.
“On championship point, I was pretty nervous,” Navarro recalls. “I was able to play through the nerves and once I won the match, I fist pumped my assistant coach Pichi (Gina Suarez-Malaguti). I never normally first pump and I was just so appreciative of all the work she had done all season.”
Riffice required three sets in his championship match. Facing the No. 2 seed in the tournament Daniel Rodrigues (South Carolina), Riffice dropped the first set 6-3. In front of his family, teammates, and a raucous hometown crowd, Riffice carried the confidence from his previous wins, winning the next two sets 6-1, 6-4 to capture Florida’s first singles national title in 22 years.
Navarro and Riffice’s championship wins earned them wild cards into the 2021 US Open main draw. Both previously graced the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as juniors at the US Open.
Now, they arrive in New York as national collegiate champions.
“There’s nothing like playing in New York. It’s the best atmosphere in the world,” Navarro said.
“Playing in the United States growing up as a junior, the goal is to always play in the US Open,” Riffice said. “Being in college and knowing that the one opportunity to get that is to win an NCAA Tournament, it’s a big deal.”
Navarro is entering her sophomore year at Virginia. While her hometown is Charleston, S.C., Navarro was born in New York City. She attended the US Open numerous times as a child with her family, walking the Flushing Meadows grounds in awe.
Her favorite moment, however, occurred when she was playing as a junior at the US Open, and seeing players in person that she grew up watching on TV. “I was overwhelmed for sure seeing the best players in the world,” Navarro said. “The first player I remember seeing was Rafael Nadal in the dining hall, eating lunch with his team. That was pretty cool.”
Riffice also remembers watching the US open growing up, especially Andre Agassi’s epic 2005 run to the final. He recalls Melanie Oudin and how she captivated the crowd during her successful 2009 US Open.
Now, Riffice will get to experience that energy from the fans as the main draw participant.
“The passionate fans that come in from New York and all over the world, the support and love they give to American players, it’s a special feeling.”
Both NCAA singles champions demonstrated growth in their games over the past year. For Navarro, who entered her freshman year at Virginia as the No. 1 recruit on Tennis Recruiting Network, she transformed her approach to tennis. With Cavaliers head coach Sara O’Leary’s expertise, Navarro changed her forehand, modifying the technique that allowed her to make more in-match adjustments during high-stakes moments in matches. In addition, the 20-year-old focused on her mental approach, which helped her during the NCAA Championship.
“It’s one thing to improve on a stroke in practice when there’s no pressure,” O’Leary said. “But then to continue to work on it within matches, under pressure, Emma was willing to do that and her forehand improved a ton.
“She cares so much about the team and not wanting to let her teammates down and I think that’s allowed her to deal with more pressure on the court,” she added.
Riffice also credits his head coach at Florida, Bryan Shelton, for improving his game. He speaks of Shelton’s intense practices as the key preparation to deal with any kind of adversity during matches. From the hot temperatures to the length of practices, Shelton ensures that all of his players are held accountable to give maximum effort.
“One of the principles that I teach is to value every opportunity you have,” Shelton said. “I tell them that we’re not promised tomorrow so we have to give everything we’ve got today,”
“Sam is one of our leaders,” he said. “He models that for us every single day because young players look up to him. He’s done a great job at that.”
Navarro and Riffice may be familiar with the US Open setup, but they are embracing being main draw rookies. Both lean on their fellow American compatriots for advice and guidance. Navarro is hitting with Virginia alum and 26th seed Danielle Collins prior to the US Open. Riffice interacts with Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul, both of whom have practiced with the young American and provided important advice about being a professional tennis player.
Riffice will face 15th seed Grigor Dimitrov in the first round, while Navarro squares off against fellow American Christina McHale. As both players begin their maiden Grand Slam main draw appearances, they look to give their best on the court, while applying the lessons learned when they play college and pro tournaments.
“Every tournament I try to come out of it better than when I came in and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m also going to have fun and enjoy it,” Navarro said.
“I’m going to enjoy this opportunity that I have,” Riffice said. “I’m going to make the most of it, practice with as many pros before the tournament, try to play my best tennis and not worry too much about the result.”