Saturday's match against Illinois was the second of three top-20 matchups for the Carolina men's tennis team in a span of nine days. And despite some early adversity, the No. 3 Tar Heels (6-0) kept their undefeated record intact with a 4-3 win over No. 12 Illinois (3-1).
The trouble started in doubles for Carolina. After first-time doubles partners, junior Anu Kodali and freshman Ben Sigouin, won their set 6-3, the other two doubles teams went into tiebreakers. Carolina lost both of them, though, and the Illini took the doubles point.
But once singles began, Carolina started off strong, winning five of the six first sets.
“A heck of a match,” head coach Sam Paul said. “We know they’ve got a very good team. So it’s always a battle with those guys, and the doubles point was close. I’m very proud of my team, the character of our team."
Once again, Sigouin finished quickly in his singles sweep to put the Tar Heels up on the board, evening the score 1-1. Sigouin has been managing his role on Court No. 2 for Carolina with no jitters, and it appears the freshman from Vancouver is enjoying the big stage of collegiate tennis.
On Court No. 3, Robert Kelly easily won his first set, 6-2, but went down early in the second set. Kelly stuck with his game plan and strategic approach and battled back to win his second set 6-4.
The Heels went up 2-1 for the match with Kelly's win before Bo Boyden's straight-sets win on Court No. 6 turned the match for Carolina, which held a 3-1 edge.
That’s when the team stalled.
Just like with the doubles point, the Illini were far from backing down, and just as soon as the Heels went up again, Illinois grabbed a point back on Court No. 4, where Simon Soendergaard lost his second-set tiebreaker. It was already the third one Carolina lost in the evening.
It came down to Courts No. 1 and No. 5 then, each heading into their third sets.
Will Blumberg lost his second-set tiebreaker, the fourth one of the night, and sent himself to a third set on Court No. 1. Not long after Blumberg lost his tiebreaker, Josh Peck, the other Canadian on the team, lost his second set tiebreaker as well when Illinois opponent Zeke Clark forced a third set. Five tiebreakers down.
Blumberg’s third set was a quick procedure, and the sophomore lost 6-1. Right beside him, the match rested on the outcome of Court No. 5 as the Illini and the Tar Heels were now an even 3-3 on the board.
And so the match fell to Josh Peck, the sophomore who was playing his first big match for the Heels.
“I was more just trying to focus on one point at a time and just focus on my own game and almost enjoy the moment, Peck said, "more than let the crowd and the cheering and how much the moment meant get to me.
“So I just tried to focus on playing simple and executing the game plan.”
Peck’s game plan didn’t fail him, either, and he took control of the set, winning quickly with a 6-2. The match went for the Tar Heels, and the joy and relief in the air at Cone-Kenfield was palpable.
The match winner, Peck, said there were no nerves at all. There was just excitement and joy.
“I really enjoyed the moment, for sure,” he said. “I thought it was really fun just playing out there when it was tied three-all. I knew if I just could focus, could execute, then I could get the job done for the team.”
What does this mean for the Tar Heels? What does their front-loaded preseason schedule mean for them down the road?
“I think we keep learning stuff about our team," Paul said. "We certainly worked on some things after the Michigan match this week and we’ll work on some things, we saw some things today. We just keep getting better.
"That’s one of our goals is just going for every match and just trying to get better and better and better every day. We’ve grown a lot in the last two weeks. We grew again tonight and we’ll grow from this match.”
Losing five tiebreakers in a match certainly isn't what Paul hoped or expected from his team on Saturday. But the players know they'll grow from that, too.
“This will only help us more once we get to National Indoors,” Kelly said. “Even the guys who lost today, you could tell they were good. They’re turning the corner; they’re kicking. So, I’m just proud of everyone.”
The Heels are taking on No. 16 TCU at home on Tuesday, the third in a tough stretch for the team. But there’s only room for growth.