DURHAM — Age is just a number when it comes to the North Carolina men’s tennis team.
Despite their youth, the experiences and capabilities that first-years Ben Sigouin and Mac Kiger bring to the team ultimately pushed the No. 8 Tar Heels (11-3, 2-0 ACC) to a 4-3 victory over rival No. 12 Blue Devils (10-6, 1-1 ACC) at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s big …” head coach Sam Paul said. “I think they are playing to the capabilities. They’ve got used to in college tennis.”
“One thing I told them when they got here was that they’ve beaten players better than they’ll see all here so just to embrace the situation.”
Sigouin had just come off of a 6-2 win in doubles with partner junior Anu Kodali. Feeling confident, the Canadian started to relax as his singles match started on Court Two, a mistake that was almost fatal.
Down 3-0 in the first set, Sigouin faced an uphill battle and ultimately rallied to a 6-4 victory in the first set. After refocusing himself and listening to Paul’s advice, the first-year continued to fight, but lost the second set, 6-4.
“He just told me to keep working, well, start working actually,” Sigouin said. “I was giving him too many free points at the beginning, and I was just trying to hit winners.”
As the first-year headed into the third set, he wasn’t the only one on his team facing the same fate. Kiger on Court Six and senior Robert Kelly were also heading into their third set.
UNC and Duke were tied 2-2 after junior Blaine Boyden clinched a 6-2, 6-2 victory on Court Five.
Teammates for both teams split in half and lined up on Courts One and Four to cheer on their respective teams as they progressed into the third set. For the Tar Heels, a single phrase was continuously repeated no matter if a UNC player won or dropped the point.
“All heart Tar Heel,” sophomore William Blumberg shouted to Kiger and Sigouin as they battled and ultimately won their final matches 6-3 and 6-2, respectively.
“Our team, we try and pride ourselves on how hard we work, and just trying to outwork guys,” Boyden said. “So for us, all heart, it’s not really about talent in matches like this. Everybody can hit balls.”
“It’s all about who’s going to fight more, who’s going to use more heart, and it’s really what our motto is — all heart and trying to fight.”
When Sigouin, the final Tar Heel to finish, clinched the winning point, his team stormed the court. Along with the screams and cheers, ‘all heart Tar Heel’ was repeated again, serving as a reminder during the rivalry match.
“It gets me really motivated,” Sigouin said. “I think it’s good to remind myself to just keep fighting and sometimes with long matches like these, you can have little dips, and these guys, when they cheer me on like that, it’s amazing.”
With a rivalry as old as UNC and Duke's, any meeting between the two teams will be emotionally charged. For some players, it's has been a part of their lives for years.
“The rivalry is everything,” Boyden said. “I moved to Raleigh when I was 10 years old from Utah, and just kind of picked a team. Carolina was my team always. Just growing up and cheering for the Heels, there’s something special about the rivalry.”
“Every single game, no matter how good the teams are, it’s always going to be a battle. So, the fact that we can come out here, execute our game plan, get a win, it’s unbelievable.”
While it is easy to get lost in the emotions and intensity, Paul wanted to make sure his team stayed level-headed, at least as level-headed as possible given the environment and circumstances. ‘All heart Tar Heel’ served as a reminder of that mentality.
“It means that they’re going to fight,” Paul said. “That’s what I’m proud of they’re going to fight. That’s one thing we can control, how hard we train and how hard we fight.”
“Once we come out to play, how hard are you going to fight and leave everything you’ve got on the court.”
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