Robert Kelly, the lone senior on the North Carolina men’s tennis team, stepped onto the light blue, white and green courts that the Tar Heels call home. He took a deep breath, exhaled and shook his arms to loosen himself up.
Kelly swayed side to side on Court Three — his final regular-season home battle ahead of him — trying to remember that this isn't the end.
“Time flies,” Kelly said. “It kind of all hits you at once. I’m a little sad, but we have a lot more matches to play. Hopefully I can finish this thing off right.”
The No. 8 North Carolina men’s tennis team (18-4, 9-1 ACC) would honor Kelly on Senior Day exactly the way it wanted to — with a 4-0 win against Clemson. Kelly ended his playing days in the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center as a consistent Court Three competitor, and a critical half of the top-ranked doubles team in the country.
His pregame rituals, his on-court transitions from powerful serves to scrappy volleys — it was all business by this point. Or at least, that is what it had been for most of his career.
But a lot has changed for Kelly since he first arrived at UNC. In these past two seasons, the senior has rediscovered his love for the sport of tennis — and through it all, learned that there is more to life than the sport itself.
Two seasons ago, Kelly and the rest of the men's tennis team were introduced to Mick Macholl, a 5-year-old boy who died of neuroblastoma last year. The team built a relationship with the child — who signed with the team in November 2016 — and the rest of the Macholl family.
The relationship endures to this day.
“I miss him,” Kelly said last January. “And I hope he is looking down on us. I hope we’re making him proud.”
Flashing forward, it's hard to fathom that the Macholl family wouldn't be proud of the accomplished senior. After Sunday's match, Kelly said that it's even hard for him to comprehend how far he's come in his four years.
"I've spent a lot of time here," Kelly said. "If you had seen me my freshman year, I'm a lot better now. It's two completely different people."
Kelly may not have finished his singles match Sunday — UNC had already clinched its win — but throughout his career, he left a mark on the North Carolina men’s tennis program that won't soon fade. Since arriving at UNC, he has turned the program upside down and has become one of UNC’s most decorated players.
Since the 2014-15 season, the Tar Heels have gone to the National Team Indoors four straight years and won an indoor national championship, broke Virginia’s conference match win streak at Virginia, and were NCAA finalists last year. Individually, Kelly was MVP for Court Three in singles and Court One for doubles in last year's tournament.
He’s now looking at being a three-time All-American this year.
“He’s a tenacious competitor,” head coach Sam Paul said. “He’s improved his work ethic every year that he’s been here. As you see in doubles, he’s No. 1 in the nation with two different partners.
“There aren't many college guys that can say that. He leads by example with his willingness to fight. He’s going to fight you for everything.”
And even this season, the senior admits, Kelly is still learning. He said that he's learned to fall in love with the sport again after seeing how much fun this season's first-years have.
“Once you're three years in, four years in, it starts to become a grind and more of business," Kelly said. "After seeing the excitement and energy the freshmen bring, I enjoy it more now, especially since I know it’s coming to an end soon.”
Even though Kelly was in the spotlight, one of his long-time friends had a day of his own. On Sunday, Blaine Boyden extended his undefeated singles record to 19-0 and 10-0 ACC. If the junior wins his next two matches, he will hold the record for the most ACC wins in North Carolina history for a single season — a record that was previously set by William Blumberg last season when he went 11-0.
Even with this in the back of his mind, Boyden couldn’t help but think about how this was potentially the last home match for his old friend.
“It’s super surreal,” Boyden said. “I’ve known Rob since I was 10 years old, and as kids, we were dreaming of playing at UNC.”
“The fact that it is his senior day today is crazy. Time just flies.”