Someone had to step up, both in the match and for the North Carolina men's tennis team.
After winning in his doubles match, sophomore William Blumberg was slightly injured. And now, No. 3 UNC had to find a replacement for Blumberg, the No. 2-ranked singles player in the country, for his upcoming match.
Head coach Sam Paul surveyed his young team and he chose first-year Benjamin Sigouin, the top-ranked recruit from the class of 2017, to sub onto Court One at the last minute.
“I didn’t know I was playing one until after doubles today,” Sigouin said. “After his doubles match, Will told me he couldn’t go, so I got the chance. I tried to do the best I could.”
Although he came to UNC as the No. 4 player in the ITF World Junior rankings, a six-time Canadian National Champion and a 2016 French Open singles quarterfinalist, the thought of playing on Court One brought on additional pressure that was different from those past accolades.
“Yeah a bit (of pressure), that’s for sure,” he said. “It wasn’t bad to find out right before because if I found out earlier in the day, I would’ve been thinking about it more.”
“I just went out there not thinking much, just played my game and executed what I had to do.”
As a Canadian native, the player nicknamed ‘Big Ben' by his teammates brings something different to the court. In Canada, tennis is not as much of a team sport, but in the United States, college players thrive off the energy from their team as well as from fans.
Every now and then, you could see Sigouin feeding off of the crowd at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center. A grin would creep on his face; there would be a bounce to his step. His confidence grew as he battled No. 31 Alex Rybakov, an older player that he was familiar with from the junior championships. That didn’t faze him.
“I always try to stay calm on the court," he said. "Because you can’t get too ahead of yourself in big matches like this."
As he battled to a 10-8 tiebreaker win during the first set of singles and pushed through the second set to win, 7-5, he let the crowd keep him in the moment and stay focused in UNC's eventual 4-3 win over No. 16 TCU, its third top-20 win in the last three matches.
“There are a lot of people behind you, supporting you,” Sigouin said. “It makes it a lot more fun.”
While Sigouin was a fan favorite for the crowd, there was one person in particular whose support meant the most to him.
“Rob’s been great for me,” Sigouin said. “I don’t think he knows how much he’s helped me. I’ve tried to tell him that but I don’t think he really listens.”
Robert Kelly is the lone senior for this 7-0 UNC team and has been a class of one throughout his collegiate career. While he may not realize it, the inexperienced team looks up to him for guidance in every way possible.
“He has a lot of experience from talking with the guys on and off the court,” Paul said. “That’s a big key for us.”
No matter how highly the team and coaches think of him, Kelly stays humble.
“I’m not really used to being the leader as a class of one,” Kelly said. “I have always been the young guy on the team. You just see how young some of the freshmen are, like Ben, super young but still stepped up."
“I don’t do much other than showing them the Carolina Way and what coaches instilled in me.”
Kelly attempts to lead by example through his hard work. He may have dropped his singles match in the last two sets, but it didn’t affect how proud he was of the team. In his eyes, the underclassmen have stepped up.
“On the tennis court and off the tennis court, they bring a really good vibe,” Kelly said. “They’re a little immature but that happens … they bring the energy and keep us old guys on our toes, that’s for sure.”
Between the leadership from Kelly and first-years, especially Sigouin, stepping up, UNC secured a win, getting the Tar Heels closer to the theme of the season — redemption.
“We lost in the final last year, and we really don’t like those Virginia guys,” Kelly said. “That hurt us. But being so close, we just got a little taste.”
“We’re kind of just going off the basketball team from last year, and hopefully it ends up the same way.”