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Morrison, Gators seek shocking conclusion

UF's top-ranked player won a surprising singles title last year. He's back to get one for his team.

It was a shocker.

Florida's Jeff Morrison stunned the collegiate tennis world by winning the 1999 NCAA singles championship as a sophomore, upsetting the nation's top-ranked player in three sets.

Within hours, he was flooded with lucrative offers from sponsors and agents prodding him to turn professional. They promised money, endorsement deals, clothing, shoes, rackets _ everything a rookie tennis professional could desire.

It was an easy decision.

And the real shocker.

Rather than join the long list of athletes who turn their backs on college, Morrison came back. He leads the fourth-seeded Gators into the NCAA Championships today intent on winning the program's first national team title.

"We were all looking forward to this year and having a chance to do something great," said Morrison, the nation's No. 1-ranked singles player in the rankings. "That was my driving force. I felt if I didn't come back I would be letting my teammates down, and you don't like to let people down that you really care about."

Morrison, 21, is a refreshing breeze in the maelstrom of underclassmen bolting toward the promise of professional riches. He likely could have made more than $100,000 in endorsement contracts and ATP Tour winnings this season, but turned it down.

"He won NCAAs, what else does he have to prove?" said junior Nathan Overholser, Morrison's doubles partner and roommate. "He came back because he wants the team to achieve this time around."

At Florida, that makes him the lone exception. In the past four years, the Gators have lost eight football players to the NFL draft after their junior seasons. In the past six weeks, sophomore Mike Miller and freshman Donnell Harvey declared for the NBA draft, the lure of first-round notoriety more convincing than advisers who said they weren't ready.

Morrison did the opposite.

"I could have easily made a living if I left," Morrison said. "But I didn't feel I was physically or mentally mature enough to jump into that situation. In basketball and football, you get a contract for five years even if you never see the light of day. In tennis, you earn your money."

So Morrison brought his booming serve back to the learning atmosphere in which, in the span of a year, he went from an unheralded freshman playing No. 4 singles to the nation's best player. He got stronger, gaining 15 pounds to tip the scales at a whopping 160. He worked on his ground strokes. He made his volleys more precise.

And he inspired.

"Jeff winning NCAAs gave us a lot of confidence," senior Justin O'Neal said. "Seeing what he did last year really inspired us. He played No. 4 singles his freshman year, then won an NCAA title. And that's kind of how this team has done it. Last year we were pretty good, and this year we're ready to take that next step, just like Jeff did."

With Morrison in the lead, the Gators (26-3) play an emotional brand of tennis. They pump their fists, shout encouragement and celebrate with gusto. They believe.

"I wear my heart on my sleeve when I play, and since I've been here I think this team wears its heart on its sleeve," said Morrison, third on UF's all-time win list with 111 singles victories. "They have taken on my boisterousness. When you watch us play, it's fun. We try to overwhelm people with our emotion."

A consistent top-15 program before Morrison's arrival, Florida didn't even recruit the player whose daily work ethic has catapulted the Gators into title contention. Morrison's father, Alan, brokered the deal by approaching coach Ian Duvenhage at a junior clay-court event in 1997, a story Duvenhage now tells with some chagrin.

"I didn't know his name; he wasn't on my list," Duvenhage said. "And when his father said they were from Huntington, West Virginia, I thought to myself, "Yeah, right, this guy's going to be a ballplayer.' But I went to look. Clay was most definitely not his best surface, but he was so aggressive. He was just all over the place. I knew within three minutes that I wanted him."

Knowing he made the right decision to return for his junior season, Morrison plans to turn professional after the NCAA Championships. Now, he feels ready.

"Everyone is really happy with what I've done this year," Morrison said. "I'll take a couple weeks off after NCAAs and make a decision. We just have to wait and see. My focus right now is all on the team and trying to win that team title."

With Morrison, that's not so shocking.