Column: Typical Hayley Carter

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Assistant sports editor Alex Zietlow

Hayley Carter played her final pair of matches at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center last weekend, where the Tar Heels defeated Ole Miss 4-1 and clinched their spot in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Before the Tar Heels live out their final fate in Athens this week, I reflect on Carter’s excellent four years at UNC-Chapel Hill and elucidate how her success on the tennis court is only part of what makes her remarkable. 

Every college athlete has an ever-approaching expiration date. It’s vexing because the short time frame enables a fan, a coach or a reporter to spectate in ignorance for much of the athlete’s career.

During my first year at UNC, as an intern for CAROLINA: The Magazine, I was tasked with writing a preview on the UNC women’s tennis team prior to the 2016 season. Greenishly, I did some preliminary research, asked the sports information director if I could schedule a time to speak to then-junior Hayley Carter and prepared the most generic, “ra ra Carolina” questions that would probably make me cringe if I read them aloud today. 

As I write this now, I can’t help but realize how silly I was. Greatness was staring you in the face, and you were only concerned about spelling Carter’s first name correctly?! 

One and a half years later, everyone knows how great Carter is. The accolades speak for themselves. In her senior year, she has only lost once in a dual team competition in singles and doubles. She’s now 13 wins shy of eclipsing the all-time NCAA wins record — which, cruelly, is barely mathematically impossible to achieve by the end of the season.

“She’s just an amazing competitor ...” head coach Brian Kalbas said. “Hayley just has an incredible ability to raise her game when needed.”

Because of the four-year limit of eligibility, I can only reluctantly say I covered Carter for just over a year. And even then, I didn’t properly appreciate her for who she was until the very end of her very last season at North Carolina. 

To be clear, who Carter is is so much more than an athlete with accomplishments earned at a school that forces her out too soon. 

***

First-year Makenna Jones and Carter knew each other long before competing together on the North Carolina women’s tennis team this year. Well, “knew each other” may be a bit of a stretch. 

You see, the two both lived in South Carolina. And Carter was kind of a big deal there. 

“I’ve known Hayley since I was a freshman in high school when I moved to South Carolina,” Jones said. “I heard about this big Hayley Carter, and I was like, ‘Who is this? I gotta know.’”

As talented tennis players respectively, Jones and Carter both competed in the 57th annual Palmetto Championships four years ago. Being from the same state, they played on the same team. Legend has it, before a match, Carter told Jones that she would have to carry the team in doubles. And that little expectation — that jolt of confidence in young Makenna — meant the world to her. 

Typical Hayley Carter.

“I had kind of a crazy college recruiting process," Jones said, "but when I found out I could play for Carolina, I was like, ‘I can’t turn down the opportunity to play with my childhood idol.' That was unbelievable, and it’s been nothing short of that amazing this whole time.”

Her eminence didn’t stop her from influencing others once she arrived at UNC. As a senior, she’s receiving love from the community to which she’s already given so much. She’s always being flooded with love and hugs from everyone after any given match — from professors she emailed to come watch her play (she invited every single professor she’s ever had to her Senior Day), to teammates and coaches, to random strangers who appreciate the champion’s virtuosity in her own domain. After each match this past weekend, Carter was handed handwritten cards from different fans that wanted to thank and support her. 

Men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams made an appearance at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center on Saturday afternoon to see Carter play. Amidst Coach Williams talking to friends, taking pictures with different fans and signing ankle boots, he took the time to call Carter over and share a few words with her while she was between matches. The two Tar Heel household names first made contact when Carter was getting recruited, and they have remained interested in each other’s success ever since. In her memoir, Carter remembers what Coach Williams said to her over four years ago. 

“On my very first recruiting trip to UNC,” she wrote, “I will never forget sitting down with Roy Williams and him telling me, ‘Chapel Hill is a special place that will stay in your heart forever.’ Four years later, I am realizing just how right he was.”

At the last change-over before the end of her singles match on Saturday, Carter made the conscious effort to give Williams the thank-you card she had stowed in her tennis bag. 

“Sometimes when you have someone who is that good, she’s really entitled,” Kalbas said. “But Hayley’s not.”

***

Carter has been frustrating and surprising opponents her entire college career. At one point in Carter’s match on Sunday, all Kalbas could do was smile and shake his head. 

“It was just a typical Hayley moment,” Kalbas said. “Hayley’s opponent hits five or six winners and she’s got to play another difficult shot, and Hayley has such a competitive spirit and amazing ability to get so many balls back. It can frustrate so many opponents.”

Her drive to get better was evident when she first arrived in Chapel Hill and has only blossomed since. The perfectionist regularly texts Mark Kimmel, the team’s sports information director, about upcoming milestones or potential records that are in her reach of breaking. Not to mention, as a senior, Carter has dedicated more time to honing her craft this year more than any other year, her coach said. 

“A lot of seniors wouldn’t do that,” Kalbas said. “Most of them would be like, ‘I made it to the NCAA Final, I’ve set the ACC record, I’ve done all these things. I’m going to enjoy my time.’ She still has more to prove and it’s really exciting to see.”

In singles, her style of play perplexes me every time I see her on the court. You wouldn’t immediately think that the 5-foot-11-inch senior — who walks like both of her knees are locked — would be a great defender. 

But she is. 

She doesn’t always blow her opponents out of the water with powerful groundstrokes, either; she keeps the ball deep, tries to move her opponent around and attacks when the opportunity presents itself. 

And yet, she produces. Even when, this season, she had all the reasons in the world not to. 

***

Time and time again, Carter seemed to pull from a reservoir of magic this year. 

Against Georgia Tech — the match that occurred two days after her father’s funeral — Carter, with an ailing right hamstring, willed her way to a singles victory. 

“(Kalbas) asked me, ‘How much pain are you in?’” she said after the team’s loss to the Yellow Jackets. “And I said, ‘Excruciating, but there’s no way I’m pulling out.’ I told him I was going to win the match." 

“I don’t know. I’d give everything for this program. I would walk on one leg with one arm. Whatever it takes to try to get a win.”

During the next match against Michigan, Carter defeated Brienne Minor (one of her best friends and one of the first people she told about her father’s death) in singles. Sure, she was still not 100 percent healthy. And of course, Carter was supposed to win on paper. That’s not the striking part. 

Rather, instead of the ceremonial handshake after the match, Carter initiated a hug at the net. The Tar Heel senior had the perspective and maturity to not only separate competitiveness and friendship — something that’s always hard — but also tennis and life. 

That’s not to say she always did. That’s where head coach Brian Kalbas came in. Among other technical improvements in Carter’s game and tactical strategies he’s tried to instill in his best player, Kalbas placed equal weight on developing her skill on the court and her character off of it. 

Carter would admit she came to North Carolina as a good tennis player. She will leave, however, as a great person who is good at tennis. And she largely attributes that to her coach, one of the most influential people in her life.

“He’s my best friend and become a second dad to me here, which is obviously very meaningful to me with what I’ve been going through,” Carter said of her relationship with Kalbas. “I try every day to make him proud.”

***

Sunday was emotional for the senior. She graduated, after all. 

“I told Chancellor Folt that she got me to cry twice,” Carter said. 

She went to the big commencement in Kenan Stadium, but her favorite ceremony was the one she attended for economics majors. A self-proclaimed nerd, Carter has strong relationships with several professors at North Carolina. In the speeches professors delivered onstage, there were only three individuals that got shout-outs during the ceremony. Carter was one of them. 

Of course, it was emotional for another reason too: the tennis reason. Carter wanted to end the “right way,” and that’s what she did. A drop of a racquet, a turn to the relieved crowd and a bear hug to the coach that has meant so much to her over these past four years signaled the conclusion of Carter’s comeback: 4-6, 6-0, 6-3. 

“You want to write a storybook ending,” Kalbas said of Carter’s comeback theatrics in her last match in Chapel Hill. “And that’s kind of how it happened here.”

***

So, I know what some of you may be thinking: Why? What was the purpose of this story?

Allow me to explain myself with another sport. Back when the UNC men’s basketball team was crowned as the 2017 national champion, I was elated and absolutely awestruck by how much of a unifying source Tar Heel basketball is. I mean, we shut the entire campus — hell, even the entire town — down. In a campus so diverse, each and every student had that same label, “national champions,” for at least one night. Roy Williams and his Tar Heels gave us that. It was awesome. 

But the awe turned into confusion when I read stories about the game later that week. All I saw was the word "redemption." And I get it, redeeming last year’s team was a primary source of motivation for these Tar Heels, and thus it should have been a significant part of the story. But in my opinion, you can’t limit a team’s greatness — or maybe, a player’s greatness — to one thing. Nothing is fairly judged or defined by one thing.

I wrote this to try to fill in the gaps of Carter’s story, which has more or less already been told, without trying to belabor the parts that have already been put in the spotlight. I wrote this story to clearly explain why who she is epitomizes her college athletic greatness in every sense of the phrase — not in just one way. 

But, especially, I wrote it to awaken the ignorant spectators — like myself about a year-and-a-half ago — and prove to them that just because something is typical, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t equally extraordinary.

After her match Sunday, Carter was the last person to whom I requested to talk. After I asked the questions I needed answered, I stuck out my hand and said, “Hayley, it’s been a pleasure covering you these past two years.”

I was about to awkwardly apologize for my inanity back when I was an ignorant first-year, but I didn’t get the chance at the last second. The all-American, the strong daughter, the folk-hero, the captain of this Tar Heel crew that thinks they have what it takes to win the big one this year— had a young girl playfully hugging her right leg.

So, instead of saying anything else, I silently smiled and shook my head.

Typical Hayley Carter.

@alexzietlow05

sports@dailytarheel.com

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