The pinnacle of achievement in college sports is a national championship. In tennis, there are two national championships awarded within the span of a few months, the indoor championship in February and the outdoor championship in May.
The quick succession of these events makes the tennis season seem that much more thrilling, and the Tar Heels claimed their third national team indoor championship title on Monday in Madison, Wisc. — their first since 2015 and their third in the past six years.
It was the fourth year in a row the Heels made the finals of the national team indoor championship. Despite finishing runners-up each of the past two seasons, UNC wasn’t looking to avenge its previous losses. Instead, the Heels were hungry for the win, to prove that their hard work early in the season was worth taking notice.
After downing rivals Duke 4-1 in the semi-finals on Sunday, Carolina (10-0) started off strong against Pepperdine (6-1) by maintaining their perfect doubles record this spring by winning on two of the three courts.
On Court No. 2, Pepperdine’s Evgeniva Levashova and Dzina Milovanovic raced ahead of Carolina’s duo of Sara Daavettila and Alle Sanford to a 6-2 win. But on Court No. 3, Marika Akkerman and Makenna Jones answered back immediately for the Tar Heels with a 6-2 victory of their own.
The doubles point rested on Court No. 1, where No. 30 duo Jessie Aney and Alexa Graham were knotted up at 5-5 until the pair held their serve to take the lead in the set, before breaking Adrijana Lekaj and Laure Gulbe to claim the 7-5 win to grab the doubles point and put Carolina up 1-0 over Pepperdine.
Once singles began, it didn’t take long for Pepperdine to even the match score with Levashova's quick 6-0, 6-2 takedown of No. 10 Makenna Jones on Court No. 3, but the talent and grit on the Tar Heel roster wasn’t backing down from the battle.
No. 78 Alexa Graham has had a remarkably successful run of play this season, and she came up in a big spot once again. The sophomore managed to edge Carolina ahead again to a 2-1 lead in the match with a straight-set win of 6-4, 6-3 over Gulbe, giving her a 10-0 record in singles matches to start the spring.
On court two, No. 52 Sara Daavettila pushed back from a first set deficit to win 7-5 and then breezed through her second set to win 6-2 over Mayar Sherif Ahmed giving UNC a 3-1 lead.
Then things slowed down a bit, with matches on the three remaining courts heading to a third set.
Of course, all tennis fans want to see more tennis. But with the stakes this high for a team that's come up just short the past two seasons, there’s a bit of anguish that comes along with a big match like this stretching on.
When No. 27 Ashley Lahey of Pepperdine hung on to beat Carolina's No. 6 Alle Sanford in three sets, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, she cut UNC's lead to 3-2, leaving courts No. 5 and No. 6 as the potential match clinchers.
It was Jessie Aney on court No. 5 that had the shining moment. After splitting the first sets 6-3, 4-6, Aney was holding on in the third. The No. 21 ranked junior got the point she was looking for, when her opponent Milovanovic sent a backhand return wide to her right, giving Aney the 6-3 third set win and clinching the match 4-2 for Carolina.
Cue the Tar Heels storming onto the court to surround Aney in a victorious huddle. The hugs paired with the electricity in the atmosphere were reminders of why college tennis is so compelling. It’s the people behind the balls and the nets, the sweat and what they accomplish together that make it important.
The Tar Heels don't have much of a chance to revel in their win, with ACC play beginning next week. But for one Monday afternoon in Wisconsin, UNC could enjoy the fruits of its labor.