Mental toughness is an odd term. Sport psychologists struggle to define it, yet athletes strive for it, coaches preach it, and fans know it when they see it — it’s the unmistakable hallmark of championship teams.
It was a good sign, then, that the No. 12 North Carolina men’s tennis team displayed it last week as it opened the conference slate. Playing without ninth-ranked sophomore Brayden Schnur, who missed all three of the spring-break matches due to injury, and without senior Esben Hess-Olesen on the singles court, the Tar Heels picked up three ACC wins against N.C. State, Florida State, and Miami.
“I definitely think we’re all satisfied coming out with three wins over spring break,” said Hess-Olesen, who partnered with fellow senior Oystein Steiro on the doubles court. “Since I was a freshman, we’ve always had tough matches against those three teams. And considering our situation with Brayden being out and me not being able to play singles, I think everyone’s really happy that we got away with three solid wins.”
The wins didn’t come easy — especially the one on March 8 against Florida State. After UNC won the doubles point, four of six Tar Heel singles players dropped their first set. With the two teams knotted at two points a piece, 86th-ranked Robert Kelly put UNC back in front with a come-from-behind win on Court 5. Then, on Court 2, senior Brett Clark outlasted Michael Rinaldi after dropping the first set, securing the Tar Heels’ victory nearly four hours after first serve.
Both Clark and Hess-Olesen attributed UNC’s win to superior mental toughness, a characteristic that Clark believes the Tar Heels honed earlier in the season.
“We went through a stretch in February where we played five or six top-10 teams in a row,” Clark said. “And coming out of that we knew that was the toughest competition we’ll face maybe until the NCAA tournament.”
He’s right about the five-match gauntlet in February. On Feb. 13, the Tar Heels kicked off the ITA National Indoor Tournament with a 4-2 win against No. 10 UCLA. Then UNC faced No. 2 Oklahoma on the 14th, No. 3 Virginia on the 15th, No. 10 Texas on the 20th, and (newly crowned) No. 1 Oklahoma again on the 22nd.
The Tar Heels went 1-4 in that stretch, but they held their own against the nation’s best teams.
“We were close to those teams, so now we have the confidence that we can beat anyone,” Clark said. “Especially in the Florida State match, where we lost a bunch of first sets, I don’t think anyone really panicked. We just stuck with the plan and toughed it out. Sometimes you’re not going to play your best tennis, but you just have to grind it out.”
From his vantage point on the sideline, Hess-Olesen came to the same conclusion.
“Florida State came out with some good energy in singles even after we won the doubles point,” he said. “Brett got down quickly 0-5, but you couldn’t really tell by his body language. Everyone always believes in him and he believes in himself.
“Composure is really important and we work on it every day. I think that showed against Florida State. We were just a little tougher, maybe.”
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