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Thursday May 19th

Tennis isn’t only love for UNC’s Price

Secretary of the US Navy Ray Mabus presents “Leadership in Service,” the 2012 Deil S. Wright Lecture, at 3:00 p.m. on November 1 at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Buy Photos Secretary of the US Navy Ray Mabus presents “Leadership in Service,” the 2012 Deil S. Wright Lecture, at 3:00 p.m. on November 1 at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On a plane ride to California in July 2009, North Carolina sophomore Caroline Price sat staring out the window. She’d taken a similar trip the year before, and it hadn’t ended well.

As a budding tennis prodigy, she had been “rounded” at the Easter Bowl, losing in the first round of both singles draws and in the first round of doubles matches.

“That’s the worst you could possibly do,” she said.

On the plane as a high school junior, she realized she had to make some changes if she wanted to avoid a similar embarrassment. She began to pray.

Price proceeded to win both the singles and doubles competitions at the Easter Bowl, one of the United States Tennis Association’s most prestigious tournaments for junior players. She said she knew from then on that her faith and her play were intertwined.

“That was the turning point,” she said. “Before, I was playing for myself. That’s when I started playing for God. He can take it away from you at any time. I’m very thankful that he’s given me this talent, and because I’m so thankful, I want to give everything to him.”

Price writes the word “honor” in black pen on the underside of her wrist when she plays to remind herself of her devotion.

But while Price, an Atlanta area native, says she feels she’s been given her gifts for a reason, it’s easy to see how fate could have taken her down a much different road.

An unlikely journey

Mark Price, a four-time NBA All-Star, is tied with Steve Nash as the NBA’s all-time leader in free-throw percentage and is remembered as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters.

He is also Caroline Price’s father.

As the daughter of a man who played basketball at Georgia Tech and later for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s tough to imagine how Caroline Price ended up playing tennis, of all sports, at ACC-rival North Carolina. But she did.

“Caroline’s always been a very energetic child,” Mark Price said.

“She always wanted to play whatever was going on at the time, particularly with sports — whatever sport was in season, she wanted to play it.”

It was clear early on that Price benefitted from her father’s genetics. She was tall, athletic and, most importantly for tennis, left-handed. But as a professional athlete himself, Mark Price knew that his daughter’s eclectic approach to competition could make her a jack of all trades but a master of none.

“It got to the point, once we saw she had a chance to be a good tennis player that we kind of told her she had to narrow it down to a couple in high school,” Mark Price said. “She ended up doing volleyball and tennis, though it kind of hurt my feelings a little bit that she dropped basketball.”

Even though she was better at volleyball, Price eventually chose tennis, in part because her older sister, Brittany, also played tennis. The younger sister idolized her when she was a child.

“I wanted to do everything she did,” Price said. “I just wanted to be just like my sister, and I was all about the fashion, too. I thought it was really fun to be able to play a sport, but in dresses and a skirt.”

Once she confined her efforts to the tennis court, she quickly became one of the top players in her age group and began attracting attention from the best college programs.

“Her dad really wanted to play basketball here, and unfortunately, they gave the spot to someone else,” said UNC women’s tennis coach Brian Kalbas. “That was one of the things I was asking them in the recruiting process — was that going to be held against us? She was one of the top players in the nation, and we really wanted her to come here.”

A Tar Heel bred, not born

Today, Mark Price wears the occasional UNC shirt around Atlanta, much to the chagrin of friends from his days as a Yellow Jacket. But he said it’s worth it for his daughter to have what she’s found at UNC.

His daughter was closely considering a career at Georgia Tech — her mother’s alma mater also — but defied her expected fate once again.

Growing up in a home where sports were everywhere, Price knew she wanted to go to a school where she could be more than just an athlete. To her, UNC was the perfect outlet for all of those desires.

Price lived with non-athletes her freshman year in Koury Residence Hall and still makes it a point to find friends from different backgrounds. And as the only freshman on the tennis team last year, those ties off the court were critical in her adjustment to college life.

“That was hard. I’m not going to lie,” she said. “The whole team was really successful the year before I came. When I first came in, we were struggling, and even though it wasn’t my fault, I was like, ‘I’m the only new person. We’re struggling. That must be me. That must be my fault.’”

But that feeling is also what Price said she loves about tennis.

She likes knowing that both the laurels of triumph and the burden of defeat rest squarely on her shoulders.

Price’s game has thrived at UNC as a result of that sense of responsibility for her teammates, whom she now considers family.

Kalbas said she displayed the same composure in a match against Arizona last year that her father did knocking down clutch 3-point shots.

“We were down to the last two matches, and we needed to win one of those two,” he said. “Her teammate was struggling, and she ended up understanding how really important it was for the team. She has this ability to play big when the stage is huge.”

Now, Price is a top member of the team. At this fall’s ITA All-American championships, she made it to the round of 16, further than any other Tar Heel. Both she and Kalbas believe she’s poised for a remarkable spring season.

Life after tennis

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, Price heads to Mary Scroggs Elementary School to tutor second-graders.

“It’s like the highlight of my day,” she said. “I never thought I’d want to wake up at seven in the morning and be like, ‘Yay, I’ve got to get up.’ But (the students) bring joy into my life. That’s why I feel like I’m going to stick with elementary education.”

Price’s major is undecided, but she said her love for children will likely lead her to become a teacher or a coach.

While Price said she’s considering a pro career after college if all goes well, she seems equally happy with the idea of going to graduate school and coaching part-time.

As someone who at first seemed to defy her fate, Price has been defined by her willingness to sit back and let fate and faith do their work — not as a tennis player, not as NBA-great Mark Price’s daughter, but as Caroline Price, a Tar Heel.

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