The North Carolina men's tennis team's match against Texas on Sunday marked its first outdoor match of the season — which is always a mental adjustment.
But in the No. 6 Tar Heels’ 4-3 loss to the No. 20 Longhorns, there were more distractions than initially expected.
“It’s a bit slower outside with the conditions…” first-year Benjamin Sigouin said. “With indoors there’s no rain, no distractions.
“Outdoors, longer points are going to happen. I prepare myself for that because I just know it’s going to be a grind.”
Sunday’s match was a long battle for UNC, starting with dropping the doubles point, which was an uncharacteristic loss for the team. On Court Two, doubles partners junior Anu Kodali and Sigouin dropped their match first, 6-2, and No. 6 sophomore William Blumberg and senior Robert Kelly closely followed, losing their doubles match, 6-3, on Court One.
“It’s important,” head coach Sam Paul said about the doubles point. “This is the worst doubles point we’ve played all year. We made some bad (decisions) on shot selection in some spots.”
With the Longhorns leading by one, the Tar Heels needed to refocus themselves and win at least four of the six singles matches.
“It kind of pisses you off,” Blumberg said. “I contributed to a loss with the doubles point so that made me a little upset, and I just wanted to go to work in singles, honestly.”
Compared to the rest of the Tar Heels, Sigouin had it easier since he was playing against a familiar face — one of his previous doubles opponents.
“I just told myself like always to just focus point by point in singles,” Sigouin said. “I’m a lot better player in singles than doubles. I just told myself to go out there and do my thing.”
Despite just losing in doubles, Sigouin rallied and won his singles matches 6-3, 6-2 — but not without a little distraction along the way. After being up 3-2 in the first set, he asked the official to pause for a second and looked down to see his shoelace had snapped. After replacing the shoe, it happened again a few points later.
“It was annoying,” Sigouin said. “It’s not the first time it’s happened.”
While Sigouin battled it out with his shoe malfunctions on Court Two, the other two Tar Heels, who played beside him, faced a battle of their own — the crowd and opposing team. Blumberg and Kelly, on Courts One and Three, respectively both played all three sets. However, different distractions threw them off their game at various points during the match.
For Kelly, the opposing team was a problem on Court Three. There is a fence and a walking path that separates Courts One through Three and Four through Six, leaving room for teammates on both squads to line up along the fence and yell cheers that weren't always in good taste.
Kelly won the first set, 7-6, in a tiebreak (7-5), despite the loudness in his ear. However, the second set is when it started to become too much for him as the jeers escalated.
Eventually, the crowd got to him. He snapped and asked the official to do something about it.
Kelly lost the second set, 6-3, leaving him in a frustrated state as the Longhorns only grew louder through the third set. Assistant head coach Tripp Phillips ended up intervening, confronting the opposing team and refocusing his flustered player.
“Find your way to neutral, and get to work,” Phillips said.
Kelly ended up dropping the third set 6-3, despite his teammates attempting to drown out the heckling.
Court One faced a similar issue; however, it was the lack of sound that threw Blumberg off. With it being a cold and windy day, not as many UNC fans showed up as the team would’ve liked.
“Playing at home, it is a huge advantage ...” Blumberg said. “My mom being here was awesome for me. Whenever she’s here, it’s great.
“Feeding off the crowd is a big thing for me. When I can feed off my teammates and family and friends and everyone coming out, it’s definitely huge for me, especially after losing the first set.”
While the crowd livened up, Blumberg’s distractions and misfortunes were far from over. With the sophomore up 4-2 in the second set, he seemed to lose his balance. Blumberg leaned against the fence and sank to the ground.
Moments earlier, he had fallen and hit his head.
While an injury has the potential to throw off someone’s game, it only seemed to strengthen Blumberg.
“As weird as it is, when you do something like that or are a little injured, I find it a little easier to focus because it narrows what you are worried about,” Blumberg said. “It kind of helped me cut out all the 'BS' and just start focusing on the match.”
As Blumberg refocused himself once again, Phillips came over to help the Tar Heel just as he did with Kelly. After the pep talk, Blumberg went on to win the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 and take the match.
“He told me to relax and stop trying to hit second ball winners," Blumberg said. "Just like he said, it’s outside now so you can’t really start going for winners as opposed to indoors, it’s a lot faster.
"Once I embraced the mentality that it was going to be a tough day, then it was good for me.”
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