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Senior Sofie Oyen has been a rock in Florida's lineup the past four seasons.

Thursday January 30, 2014Oyen's Decision to Come to UF a Huge Win for Gators

Senior Sofie Oyen has been a rock in Florida's lineup the past four seasons.

By Michelle Provenzano
GatorZone.com Writing Intern

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When you think of some of the greatest Florida athletes, a few names may instantly come to mind.

Tim Tebow, Emmitt Smith, Joakim Noah, Abby Wambach -- and the list goes on.

When you look at players that have come through the UF women's tennis program, the legacy is undeniable.

Senior Sofie Oyen is part of that legacy, already among one of the most accomplished players in school history as she plays out her final season on the college courts.

Sofie Oyen

Oyen was part of back-to-back national championship teams and has dominated the Southeastern Conference in singles and doubles with a career SEC singles record of 25-2 and 22-9 in career SEC doubles.

As much as Oyen has contributed to the success of Florida women, it’s scary to think that the Leopoldsburg, Belgium, native might have never made it to the Sunshine State.

“My goal was to play pro at first,” Oyen said. “But my coach in Belgium said college would be a good idea. You can get a degree and play high-level tennis at the same time.”

From the moment Oyen agreed to start looking into U.S. colleges, it’s almost as if the stars aligned to bring her to the Gator Nation — or maybe it was just the allure of coach Roland Thornqvist infectious personality.

“I knew national coaches in Europe, and I knew Belgium has a really good junior program,” Thornqvist said.

He should know, after recruiting former Gator Caroline Hitimana from the same country.

“I found out that Sofie and her national coach were trying to place her in the U.S., so I flew over in the summer before she came, to watch her play and meet with her and her coach.

“I was there the same day Duke was there, and so I presented Florida. The next night, [Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth] presented Duke. It was kind of interesting.”

But when you have Thornqvist as the man in charge, he’s going to fight for the best players he can get — all with a smile on his face.

“I met Roland at a tournament and loved him right away,” Oyen said. “He knew I could grow into an even better player than I was.”

Thornqvist added: “Anybody who knows anything about tennis, knows it takes three minutes to watch her play and see how talented she is.”

Oyen made her decision to go Orange and Blue, and never looked back.

“I was really excited to come here,” Oyen said. “I was used to the traveling, so playing over here wasn’t a problem.

“I just didn’t know many people, and I was a little scared in the beginning. But when I first met the whole team, we clicked right away.”

Ask almost any Florida athlete, and they’ll tell you that being on a team here is the same as being in a family.

“I didn’t know how close everyone would be here, because in Belgium we don’t really have that,” Oyen said. “I didn’t know what was coming, but it’s been so awesome to be a part of this family.

“There is no way you can have an experience like this in Belgium.”

That connection made Oyen’s transition to the U.S. easy, even with the language barrier.

“Going to classes, I was thinking it was going to be hard,” Oyen said. “But honestly after a few weeks, I just picked it up.”

Making her debut as a Gator at No. 3 in the lineup was something that not many freshmen could accomplish.

“Her performance was definitely volatile,” Thornqvist said. “Maybe I was mesmerized. I knew I had a Mercedes there in her talent.”

Sofie Oyen

She finished 22-11 in singles that season, and clinched an undefeated 9-0 record in SEC play. She was even the deciding factor in Florida’s SEC Championship win, defeating Tennessee’s Kata Szekely 6-1, 6-3.

But the most important part of the season came in Florida’s 2011 national championship win over Stanford.

“I was looking around a lot,” Oyen said. “I was playing a really good girl, and it was pretty close.

“I saw Lauren was in her third set, and I just was getting nervous. The fans would scream stuff about us, and I just was full of nerves. I was shaking all over the place.”

Oyen dropped her singles match 6-4, 7-5 to then-No.18 Nicole Gibbs, but her power in the doubles portion with Lauren Embree helped the Gators grab the doubles point and ultimately have the extra advantage in the Gators' 4-3 win for the title.

“When we finally won, it was a relief,” Oyen said. “Because it was so close — it came down to one point — that just makes it awesome.”

And to capitalize on that, a repeat win that following year to defend the Gators’ national title.

She was down by three in the first set against UCLA’s Skylar Morton on Court 4, but Oyen battled back to win five straight games to take the first-set win. She was consistent in the second and led 4-2 before a triple-game point battle. She finished Morton off with an ace.

“People were asking us, ‘how do you feel? You must have a lot of pressure on you since you were national champions before,’” Oyen said. “To do it again is just great because it’s hard to do it once, but then doing it two times in a row is even harder.”

Thornqvist added: “In championship moments, Sofie has been a rock star for us. The bigger the match, the more we rely on her.”

In her junior year, Oyen grew into a more forceful player. Oyen was ranked No. 1 in singles by the ITA prior to the season — making her only the 10th Gator to earn the honor. She finished the season with a 28-9 singles record and was ranked No. 17 by the end of Florida’s postseason.

The team’s three-peat attempt in 2013 may have left them disappointed, falling out 4-3 to Stanford in the NCAA semifinals, but Oyen looked at it as another way to grow as a player.

“I’ve matured over time,” Oyen said. “Mentally, I’m more of a fighter now than I was before.”

After clinching Florida’s 7-0 shutout of UCF on Wednesday at the Perry Indoor Tennis Facility, where she dominated the Knights’ Cortney Cesarini 6-2, 6-1, Oyen looks to cherish every last moment she has as a Gator — and of course look for more wins.

“I definitely want to win the national championship again,” Oyen said. “It’s hard to do, but this team is so close, I think we’ll be able to do it this year. I’m going to train hard and work hard. We’ll see where I get with that.”

As far as life after college? Those pro plans she put off to come to UF remain on the table.

“I’m going to go back home for sure,” she said. “I’m going to train there, play for about a year or two, go pro and maybe do my master’s degree in sports management.”

Thornqvist added: “She should definitely play. She has the talent. She owes it to herself to give it a shot with all the hard work she has put in. I think she can do anything she puts her mind to.”

When Oyen does move on, there is no doubt her legacy will be intact in the Florida record books.

“We were really happy she chose Florida because she’s not only a great talent, but she’s a good teammate,” Thornqvist said. “She’s one of those kids who gets along with everyone.

“You can put her in training with any player, any day. She always has a smile on her face, a happy-go-lucky kid. But she does have a ferocious side to her. When we play Georgia or Florida State or when it’s time to buckle down, she’s tough. We’re always going to count on Sofie.”

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