Nothing was given to the North Carolina men's tennis team in its 4-3 victory over Illinois — especially not to Josh Peck.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much we battle against these guys,” senior Robert Kelly said of the opponent. “We’re not the best of friends.”
For the No. 3 Tar Heels and No. 12 Fighting Illini, Saturday night was the fourth top-15 matchup in the last five meetings. Stakes were high — this was apparent in the blue and orange packs of tennis players, huddled on each side of Court Five, screaming the chants of their respective schools so loudly and so often that the rallying calls began to mix: "TAR HEELS! ILLINI!"
And with the fans from each team adding their voices to these songs, the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center became electric.
But for all the screams and the chants and the arguing, there were equal moments of silence. Most of these moments came at the end of the final singles match, whenever Peck, the 79th-ranked singles player in the country, drew back to serve. But how did it come to this, every eye on court five, with the whole match resting on the inexperienced sophomore’s shoulders?
The Tar Heels' only doubles win came from the first-time duo of junior Anu Kodali and first-year Benjamin Sigouin. The team won its match, 6-3, while the more experienced doubles partners each dropped their matches in tie-breakers. This gave Illinois (3-1) the doubles point and a 1-0 advantage heading into the remaining six singles matches.
“Anu stepped in for us, being a new doubles player,” UNC head coach Sam Paul said. “And they played good doubles.”
Heading into singles, the Tar Heels won five of their first six sets, giving the team and their fans hope after a close doubles loss. After quick wins from Sigouin, Kelly and junior Blaine Boyden, UNC (6-0) was up 3-1 with growing confidence. But, as if the match was meant for Peck to win, things began to shift in the Illini’s favor.
Illinois’ Aleks Kovacevis defeated No. 70 Simon Soendergaard in a tiebreaker match, one of four tiebreakers losses by UNC on the day. The win made the score 3-2 in favor of UNC, with the final two matches being played side by side.
On court one, No. 2 sophomore William Blumberg faced off against Illinois’ Aleks Vukic. As a first-year, Blumberg racked up an impressive list of achievements including NCAA singles runner-up, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and ITA National Rookie of the Year. This year, he’s acted as a leader for the team, working his way up to the No. 2 singles player in the nation.
But it wasn’t the All-American who won the match for the Tar Heels — it was Peck. The 6-foot-5 Canadian who got barely any playing time last year, who took on matches all summer to prove himself, all working toward this moment: the biggest match of his career.
“Josh was really good last year at not complaining when he wasn’t playing,” Kelly said. “He just worked and worked, and played a lot of features this summer. That takes a lot of motivation."
The adjacent matches played out almost identically — the first set a relatively short one: 6-4 Peck and 6-2 Vukic. The second sets each went into a tie-breaker, with Illinois’ Zeke Clark beating out Peck, and UNC's Blumberg taking down Vukic. But after a hard-fought 7-6(5) tiebreaker win over Vukic, Blumberg seemed to be out of steam.
With his team’s best singles player fading next to him, Peck knew he had to finish the match with the poise of a far more experienced player. But for Peck, this wasn’t a burden to carry — this was fun for him, even after Blumberg dropped his last set, 6-1.
“I thought it was really fun just playing out there when it was tied, 3-3," Peck said. "I knew that if I could focus and execute, that I could get the job done for the team.”
And with every eye on Court Five, with the screams, with the silence, with all the summer matches and time spent on the sidelines, he got it done.
Peck finished the last set, 6-2, winning on a double fault from Clark. After that final botched serve, Peck turned to that pack of blue huddled on the court next to him and welcomed his teammates' cheers and their tackles — he wanted them.
“I just wanted to enjoy the moment,” Peck said, “more than let the crowd and the cheering and how much the moment meant get to me.”
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