Strength in Numbers

The ITA Kickoff Weekend has always been big in Chapel Hill, with both men’s and women’s tennis hosting their respective regionals. This past weekend didn’t disappoint.

The Carolina women’s tennis team swept its opponents, first Winthrop on Friday and then Illinois on Saturday, to clinch its spot in the ITA Indoor National Championships next month. It's a tradition for the No. 5 Tar Heels, who have earned a berth in the 16-team field every year since 2002, their first appearance. They've finished as the runners-up in the past two seasons and won it all in 2013 and 2015.

When asked about their success so far this year, with their record now 6-0, the players' answers had a recurring theme: depth.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team this deep, or been on a team this deep,” Jessie Aney said after Friday’s match.

Head coach Brian Kalbas is clearly pleased with how well his team is handling the pressure of the competition and, again, depth was mentioned.

“We have strong spots all the way through the line-up and every point is the same," Kalbas said. "So it’s a nice comfort to know that we’ve got players — even players that didn’t play in singles and in doubles — that are working hard, and are ready to go. Having a long season, it is definitely going to be an advantage for us to have this kind of depth."

It starts with those that returned stronger — Makenna Jones in particular. Jones was a staple at the No. 5 spot last season and has elevated herself to become the regular at Court No. 2 for the 2018 season ahead.

“I worked so incredibly hard over the summer and in the fall and I just decided that, ‘I’m done being mediocre. I’m taking myself to the next level,'" said the sophomore, who is currently ranked No. 11. "It’s been paying off.

“We’re all equal. I’m no more important than anyone else, but it’s a position where I’ve got to be there every day. There are no off days at a two-spot, so I’m holding myself more accountable and being a better player.”

Jones expressed that it was a mental shift that made everything fall into place for her.

“I decided that I have to be aggressive," she said. "You can’t be at the best level and not be aggressive, so I kind of took that mentality. It’s that mentality that allowed the rest of my game to improve.”

Jones and her doubles partner, Marika Akkerman, didn’t drop a single game to Winthrop’s Aida Kelic and Ellie Burns on Friday. Then, they battled for a 6-4 win against Illinois’ Asuka Kawai and Mia Rabinowitz on Saturday.

Akkerman is another player who returned for Kalbas this season, after she sat out all of last season due to a preseason injury. This year, she's come back with a competitive edge and a renewed love of the game.

“She’s really been just a blessing for our team,” Kalbas said. “After being out for a whole year and not being able to play, she realized how much she missed it, how much she missed the love of the game and competing. You watch her in doubles and she’s just so easy to coach because she’s just so bouncy and excited and energetic, and she adds so much toughness to our team.”

 Sara Daavettila (above) had a superb freshman season but is building upon it this year. | Photo by Olivia Henley

Sara Daavettila (above) had a superb freshman season but is building upon it this year. | Photo by Olivia Henley

Then comes Sara Daavettila, the sophomore who pulled in all sorts of accolades all throughout her freshman season in 2016-2017. Yes, she’s stronger too. Even with all of those accolades to her name, she knew there was one aspect of her game she had to address to reach her full potential.

“I worked a lot on my serve in the offseason and over the summer, especially over the winter break as well, just preparing for the season,” Daavettila said. “I knew it was going to be a big part of first ball and just my confidence going into every match and definitely easier on my shoulder, making a lot more first serves. And it gives me a lot more confidence that if I put in the work, I’m going to get good results, so I’m very happy with how it’s been lately.”

With the improved serve, Daavettila managed to only drop three games in singles all weekend. The offseason hard work has clearly paid off for those returning on the roster.

And then there’s Alle Sanford.

 Alle Sanford (above) has already delivered in her short Carolina career. | Photo by Olivia Henley

Alle Sanford (above) has already delivered in her short Carolina career. | Photo by Olivia Henley

The ITA Kickoff Weekend also served as a showcase for Sanford, the standout freshman who's already made her name in college. To those who’ve paid close attention to the Carolina newcomer, they know that Sanford has already won a national championship back in September. Defeating the defending champion, top-ranked Ena Shibahara of UCLA, she claimed the ITA Masters Championship.

“It’s tough to play one,” Kalbas said of Sanford's championship. “She’s a freshman. You could hear her ‘Come on!’s and her excitement and she enjoys the big stage. She’s not afraid of the big stage, and her ability to come in as a freshman and already win a national title in the month of September speaks volumes for her and our team.

"For her to kind of step up and play one early in the season speaks well for our team.”

It’s the returning players, it’s the newcomers, it’s the whole team working together like a machine. Carolina women’s tennis did not rebuild after last season: it reloaded.

This is a team that’s looking to continue with the culture of success that surrounds the program as it head offs to the ITA National Indoor Championships held in Madison, Wisc., from Feb. 9-12. There’s no pressure to live up to the teams before them, but the desire to be their best — to be the best — is what pushes this team forward.

“It’s something I’ll probably not think about just because it’s still my mentality that I’m just trying to get better, and I hope the rest of the team is thinking that too,” Jones said. “That being said, we’re very competitive, so obviously we want only the best. But I hope we can just go out and be competitive and do our best.”

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Photos by Olivia Henley