Resilience powers men's tennis to ITA National Indoors

Resilience powers men's tennis to ITA National Indoors

It was the doubles point on Saturday that gave the North Carolina men's tennis team the momentum it needed to earn a 4-0 victory over Drake.

It was the doubles point on Sunday that gave the No. 3 Tar Heels the fire to earn a 4-2 victory over No. 17 Michigan, clinching a fourth straight trip to the ITA National Team Indoors.

It was the first doubles point Carolina lost in five matches this season.

“We watched (Michigan) play doubles yesterday — it’s honestly some of the best doubles that I’ve seen in the last year,” said head coach Sam Paul. “So, I think our team will grow a lot from that, and credit to our guys. We stepped in and fought like crazy. This is a good win for us, and we learned a lot from today that will help us down the road.”

Even though he dropped his doubles point, Robert Kelly — the only senior on the team — didn’t find himself feeling any less secure about sealing a win Sunday. There is a level of trust between the men on Paul’s team that keeps them focused on the objective at hand: winning.

“We’re still trying to figure out the kinks, but we know that if you’re here on the team you’re a really good singles player, so we trust that,” Kelly said. “You know, going into singles we thought we’d win 6-1. We trust everyone and yeah, it's disappointing losing the doubles point, and you can start to doubt yourself.

"But we locked right back in after a couple of games of singles. You could see guys had kind of forgot completely about the doubles and just went back to work.”

Michigan was the first real test for Carolina this season, but it didn’t take long for the Tar Heels to regain their footing.

On Court No. 6, Bo Boyden was quick to win two straight sets, evening the score 1-1 for the match. In what would become a recurring act, Boyden thanked the almost 500 fans who were packed into Cone-Kenfield to show their support.

“I really wanted to come in on my court with a lot of energy and try to get up and use the crowd a little bit,” Boyden said. “We had unreal fans today. Thanks a lot, to all of them, for coming. I feel like I used that to my advantage. It was great for me to get a really great start, and I feel like the team used that momentum, which was awesome.”

The team did use that momentum, as not long after Boyden's point went up on the scoreboard, Kelly added his own as well.

Senior Robert Kelly (above) couldn't secure the doubles point for UNC on Sunday, but it didn't matter. | Photo by Olivia Henley

Senior Robert Kelly (above) couldn't secure the doubles point for UNC on Sunday, but it didn't matter. | Photo by Olivia Henley

“For me, today was tough losing the doubles, because I pride myself on doubles," Kelly said. "But, for me, tennis is played a little like a chess match. So I just came out and figured out what (Michigan's Mattias Siimar) didn’t want to see and what he wanted to see. There are ups and downs in a tennis match, and so what I thought I did really well today was just see it out and ride the waves and not get too carried away and try to keep my cool.”

Just as Kelly's point from Court No. 3 was added to give Carolina the 2-1 lead, there was a second-set tie-breaker going on at Court No. 2. Freshman Ben Sigouin had won his first set, 6-4, and was battling it out in the second set. The final result of the set, 7-6(3), put Carolina up 3-1 over Michigan. Only one point away from clinching.

The remaining three courts though had gone into their third sets. Courts No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 were all still up in the air. This was the first time Carolina had any singles matches go to a third set all season.

Court No. 1 saw a top-10 matchup as No. 2 Will Blumberg battled against No. 9 Alex Knight from Michigan, a battle that Knight managed to pull ahead in, defeating Blumberg 6-4, 3-6, 6-1. Michigan was not going down without a fight, pulling back to 3-2.

As Court No. 1 wrapped up, the action continued on Court No. 5 for Josh Peck and on Court No. 4, where Simon Soendergaard was up 5-1 over Michigan’s Myles Schalet.

Soendergaard had dropped his first set, 6-3, but he remained cool. In the second set, he managed a 6-4 win and wasn’t backing down as play continued.

“I was a little surprised about how well he played in the beginning," Soendergaard said. "And I knew it was going to be hard for him to keep it up the whole match, and I was just trying to hang in there and wait for my opportunity to come back into the match. Luckily, today I was very solid both from the ground and mentally and tried to just dig in there.”

The third set was smooth sailing for the sophomore, as he won 6-2 just minutes after Michigan had gotten one back on Court No. 1. The victory gave Carolina the overall win, clinching the match 4-2 with play remaining unfinished for Peck on Court No. 5.

The Cone-Kenfield crowd certainly helped, too. I found myself comparing it to the "12th man" at football or soccer games after Paul mentioned being able to feel the energy, and Kelly said it helped energize the team.

“There were a ton of people here, there was a lot of noise, and everything was going on," Kelly said. "We had a helluva crowd out here, so that was super fun."

The resilience of his team was something Paul said he was proud of after Sunday's match, which secured UNC a spot in the 16-team ITA National Indoors field from Feb. 16-19 in Seattle.

“I mean, wow. We’ve got two freshmen playing, a sophomore at court one,” he said. “They’re veteran players. They showed some veteran play today after dropping the doubles point and everybody just coming back to work and just settling in.

"I think everybody played pretty well all up and down the line. It’s close. They work hard and so it means a lot if our guys are going to fight and not get too down on ourselves.”

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Photos by Olivia Henley