The No. 5 North Carolina men’s tennis team lost its first match of the season in a 4-0 defeat to No. 1 Virginia in the semifinals of the ITA National Men’s Team Indoor Championship. The Cavaliers (8-0) used their home-court advantage at the Boar’s Head Sports Club to avenge their loss to the Tar Heels in the championship round of last year’s ITA National Men’s Team Indoor Championship.
UNC opened the tournament with a matchup against No. 10 Georgia, the team that defeated the Tar Heels in the quarterfinals of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. In what would become a trend for the weekend, the Tar Heels (11-1) began the match by dropping the doubles point for the first time this season. The team rallied to defeat the Bulldogs 4-2, behind straight-sets victories by sophomore Blaine Boyden, seniors Ronnie Schneider and Jack Murray and first-year William Blumberg.
In the quarterfinals, UNC matched up with No. 4 California. In what was only the second meeting all time between the two programs, North Carolina won a hard-fought match with the Golden Bears, 4-2, improving the team’s record to 2-0 against the Pac-12’s powerhouse program.
After again being down 1-0 after the doubles play, first-year Simon Soendergaard gave his team its first point of the match, with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 42 Filip Bergevi, earning his first win over a ranked opponent in his young collegiate career. Boyden followed that up with a win of his own, and Cal would quickly even the score after No. 27 Andre Goransson rallied to defeat Blumberg in three sets.
With the remaining matches all going to third sets, Murray fought off two game points to break the serve of Bjorn Hoffman and carried that momentum to a victory. With No. 16 Schneider down 4-1 in a tiebreaker against No. 11 Florian Lakat, it was junior Robert Kelly who clinched the match for his team with a victory over No. 40 Billy Griffith.
In a matchup with familiar-foe Virginia, UNC found itself down quickly, after the Cavaliers earned two 6-1 victories to take the doubles point. That momentum spring boarded the nation’s top team to a 3-0 lead, with straight-sets losses by Soendergaard and Schneider, who was hampered by a back injury he suffered over the weekend.
Who stood out?
Boyden continued his strong play for the Tar Heels with two singles victories in the tournament. The sophomore is thriving with the increased playing time he is seeing this season in the No. 5 and No. 6 positions in the Tar Heels’ lineup. Boasting an 8-0 record in this dual-match season, his teammates see him growing in confidence with every win.
“He’s playing the best tennis of his life right now,” Schneider said. “He’s really balling out, and for him to play as well as he has, and do as well as he did (over the weekend), is great. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
When was it decided?
With Boyden up 5-2 in his second set, and Blumberg and Kelly battling in their third sets, Murray was unable to close out his second-set tiebreaker, sending the team’s rival back to the championship match.
Why does it matter?
Despite not defending their indoor championship crown, there are positive takeaways for this young Tar Heel team. The two first-years who will be regulars in the starting lineup going forward, Blumberg and Soendergaard, showed they can win over top competition with both players winning key matches against ranked players.
Even though he lost two of his three singles matches, Soendergaard showed signs of getting back to top form after an 18-month layoff from competition. It's no easy task, considering he is trying to do so while competing at the No. 3 position and that he missed the first five matches of the season, which was the easiest part of UNC’s schedule.
If the Tar Heels can get back on track with their doubles play and can maintain their health, the team has the talent to compete with anyone they step on the court with.
Where do they play next?
UNC will be in Nashville on Feb. 27 to match up with Vanderbilt for the second time this season. North Carolina won the first matchup, 4-1, in the ITA Kick-Off Weekend event.
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