“The unfortunate part about that time was that she had just reached a new level,” Sandy Carter said. “She’s always played really well, but she had just reached a point where I felt like she could really do this as a professional athlete.”
Doctors weren’t able to perform an MRI on Hayley’s ankle right away because it was so swollen. Four months later, an MRI proved that she should have had surgery, but since they waited this long, they chose to let it heal naturally. Hayley endured a tough six-month road to recover physically, but the aftershock of the injury lingered even longer mentally. She was faced with the first real adversity of her career. Until now, everything had come easily.
A rare talent
Some athletes are blessed with natural talent from the day they pick up a glove, a ball or, in this case, a tennis racket. It’s as if they are born with an untapped ability simply waiting to be discovered. Something clicks, and they just get it.
Hayley Carter grew up in Columbia, S.C., playing every sport she could early on, frequently dictated by her twin brothers. Early one summer, Hayley’s brothers were bored and bought tennis rackets from Wal-Mart. She took to the sport immediately.
The siblings began playing tennis regularly on their neighborhood courts. But Hayley didn’t just play against her twin brothers; she won, and she won often. Hayley was only 6 years old — her brothers were both 12.
“Them having the size advantage, they’d beat me in every other sport,” Hayley said. “So tennis was the one where I could think and use my mind to my advantage. I’m very nerdy and like to analyze everything.”
While some kids struggled to simply get the ball over the net, Hayley was already hitting rallies with those that could keep up. The siblings joined a tennis camp that same summer, and Hayley was bumped up to play against children who were much older, including the boys.
One of the coaches at the tennis camp held a meeting with the Carter family. He saw something special in Hayley and suggested to her family that they help her pursue tennis even further. A barrage of camps, private lessons and tournaments followed as it became clear that Hayley had a gift for the sport.
She continued to play any other sport she could. But by age 11, she fully committed to tennis, enrolling in the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy and moving to Hilton Head, S.C.
“It was actually my idea,” said Hayley of her enrollment at Smith Stearns. “It just happened so quickly. I don’t think many parents would be so supportive. It’s amazing they were just because an 11 year old wanted to play a sport, so I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Hayley went from playing tennis for around three hours a week among other sports to playing only tennis at the academy — for three hours a day. Academy coach B.J. Stearns remembers why her talent was evident to all.
“Her knowledge and her ability to understand how to work through every match is what made her so good,” Stearns said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time she’s going to find a way to win the tennis match, which is rare.”
Stearns helped groom Hayley’s game for almost eight years before her days at UNC. She won 14 state championships, was a nine-time Southern region champion, won four USTA National Championship Gold Balls and more. But the unexpected ankle injury almost derailed her career, and it was Stearns who helped her get back on track.
“I was out for nearly half a year, and then the rest of the year, I played terrible,” Hayley said. “It was this thought that maybe I couldn’t accomplish my dream after all. I had never lost that much. I almost didn’t know the feeling, and I thought it was the end of the world.”
Hayley worked with Stearns privately for an hour each morning on weekdays during her recovery. The sessions helped her game but helped her reestablish her confidence, as well.
“We definitely had a lot of long talks,” Stearns said. “Just had to get her to take a step back and realize that in your career you’re probably going to go through one or two times where things aren’t going to be as easy.”
Ranked as the No. 2 overall player in the country by TennisRecruiting.net as a senior, Hayley enrolled at UNC in fall 2013. She finished the season as the first player in program history to be named ACC Freshman of the Year. She received ITA All-America honors in singles and doubles and finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country in both singles and doubles.
As a sophomore, Hayley is currently second on the team with 29 wins, sits at the No. 15 spot in the ITA singles rankings and is a member of All-ACC First Team. She’s been a key part of UNC’s undefeated season and ACC regular-season championship — which the team hopes to build off of entering today’s ACC Women’s Championship matchup against Virginia Tech.
Hayley still wears a brace on her right ankle to this day. It’s not as much for the physical protection, but it’s a mental thing instead. It’s a source of comfort in a way, or maybe it’s just a habit at this point. Regardless, wariness is not prevalent when watching Hayley Carter play these days.
“If you’ve seen her compete, she really has a playfulness about her,” said UNC women’s tennis coach Brian Kalbas. “She’s very endearing. She doesn’t want to let me down and doesn’t want to let the team down. She has incredible toughness, incredible competitiveness and passion.”