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Two letters connect UNC's Hayley Carter with late dad

Hayley Carter is the most successful player in North Carolina women's tennis history. But through athletic success and personal strife, two letters have guided the senior in her record-setting career.

Hayley Carter is the most successful player in North Carolina women's tennis history. But through athletic success and personal strife, two letters have guided the senior in her record-setting career.

Since Hayley Carter was little, she and her dad have always said goodbye the same way: She’d say “x’s and o’s” and he’d say “o’s and x’s.” The Carters are action people — they would rather show than tell. But sometimes actions don’t tell the whole story.

That brings us to our first letter.

It wasn’t just about tennis for Hayley, and Steve Carter knew it. She needed a family, so as the South Carolina product was deciding between Duke and UNC, her dad wrote her a letter about which school was best. Hayley refused to read it, not wanting her parents’ opinions to sway her too much.

She opened the letter after committing to North Carolina in April of her junior year. Four pages from her dad praising the UNC coaches, family and university community. They were, once again, on the same page.

“You’ve made the best choice you’ve ever made,” he said.

Hayley is now the most successful women’s tennis player in UNC history. The reigning 2016 ACC Player of the Year enters the ACC Tournament this Friday ranked No. 2 in singles and No. 1 in doubles.

She never puts herself above her teammates, whom she calls her “tennis family.” There’s a reason no player has transferred during Brian Kalbas’ time as head coach.

“We try to cultivate the atmosphere that is a family,” Kalbas said. “We go through tough times, we go through good times and we have each other’s backs.”

Kalbas has become a second dad to Hayley, her teammates as her sisters. Steve knew UNC would prove to be an extension of her family. One day, she would desperately need it.

***

They played together from day one.

“He’s someone that, the second she was born, has just been with her constantly, played ball with her,” said Hayley’s mom, Sandy. “He’s the one that wanted to get her into sports.”

“Whatever Hayley wanted, Hayley got from him. He was absolutely her best friend.”

As a kid, she chased him around on her little scooter. He handled all of her tennis logistics — not because he cared about how she played, but because he knew she did.

Hayley takes each game in stride, never arguing a call on the court. But that’s fine, because Steve was nervous enough for both of them.

She was playing in a high school tournament when his anxiety reached a breaking point. Hayley sprinted to return her opponent’s drop shot, and Steve — sitting on the baseline in front of a glass window — gripped his chair with anticipation. As she sprinted, he jerked the chair back and shattered a glass window.

“My dad’s the loudest one there, so obnoxious,” Hayley said, “and he’s my number one fan.”

So that’s why this season, though her most successful on the court, has proven so odd.

As the wins piled up, there was something missing. Where two people once sat was now empty. In years past, there was always a distinct voice, cheering louder than the standard applause. This year, there was just applause.

Steve and Sandy drove to Chapel Hill for nearly all of their daughter’s matches. But through Hayley’s senior season — in which she hasn’t lost a dual-meet match — the two didn’t make it to a single one.

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“(It was) really, really, really bizarre, weird not having them there,” Kalbas said.

Last weekend, Hayley earned her 163rd singles win, the most in ACC history. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation. Among them was her mom, finally, bringing tears to her eyes. Still missing was her dad.

***

Hayley and her team were sitting at Buffalo Wild Wings, celebrating a win over Virginia Tech, when she got the text from her mom.

“Call me when you can.”

Hayley’s heart sank. She knew it was just a matter of time, but she still wasn’t prepared. She stepped outside to make the call.

He didn’t have much longer.

Before the start of her senior year, the doctors found concerning masses on Steve’s pancreas. In January, he had surgery to remove his spleen and half of his pancreas. The masses turned out to be benign, but he acquired an infection. For three months, he would take a few steps forward, then a few steps back. By the end of March, the infection spread to his blood, and doctors were asking family members to say their goodbyes. Hayley didn’t want to go.

“I didn’t want to see him like that,” she said. “I had a good last memory of him.”

She hung up and walked back into the restaurant and immediately into the arms of her best friend, Maggie Kane. They sobbed together. No one really knew what to say, but perhaps that was best. Her teammates were just there, as they always were.

And so was her coach. That night, Hayley went to his house for a heart-to-heart. She’d already made up her mind that she would not go to Tennessee to see her dad pass. Kalbas and his wife knew she would regret it.

It took a couple of hours, but they convinced her. Steve was Hayley’s best friend. He was always there for her. It was her turn to be there for him.

So she flew to Tennessee the next day. She walked in, and the best friends spent their final five hours together.

And that brings us to our second letter.

As a senior, Hayley wrote tons of thank-you notes throughout the season to those who had been by her side the past four years. She was on a plane, flying to an away match, when it clicked.

“I was kind of sitting there during this tough time, thinking, ‘Why do I not write one to him?’” she said. “‘He’s the most important person there is.’”

So she wrote, and she cried on that little plane tray table. She wanted to read it to him right away, but she didn’t get the chance before his health declined.

So she read it that day in their final hours together. She thanked him for being the best dad in the world and sacrificing so much. He wasn’t responsive, but Hayley believes he heard it somewhere and that somewhere he was sending her “o’s and x’s.”

“He was a person who saw the positive in every single situation and every single person,” she said. “He made me a 10 billion times better person because of that.”

Sometimes it takes words to show exactly what a person means to you.

***

Hayley would give her heart, soul and body to this program. She’s run into more fences than she can count. This season is proof of that.

She attended her dad’s funeral on March 29, joined by nine current and former teammates, and read the thank-you letter. She played a match against Georgia Tech three days later. Her dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Up 4-1 in the first set, Hayley suffered a muscle injury so severe she could barely walk two steps. She played on.

“She was going to will herself to win that match,” Kalbas said. “No matter what.”

Her mind proved stronger than her body. The men’s tennis team was there to cheer her on, and her teammates tackled her after the win.

“It was almost like she won the NCAAs just because of how emotional that was,” Kalbas said.

The coaches made wristbands with Steve’s initials for the team, and Hayley wears it every match. Each time she looks down at her wrist, she remembers.

She visited him in February of this year, her last visit before his final hours. He was on ventilators and couldn’t speak, but he knew she was there.

As Hayley left to go back to Chapel Hill, she said, “x’s and o’s.” This time, he couldn’t physically speak, but she saw him try to mouth through his ventilator: “o’s and x’s.”

She’ll remember it for the rest of her life. And those two letters are there when she needs them the most.

sports@dailytarheel.com