CARY — Kids were running around the tennis park as a sea of light blue and garnet flanked the concrete steps next to the courts.
Even with the bright sun and hot temperatures, fans flooded the scene to cheer on their respective teams, and there was hardly ever a quiet moment.
“Everyone that comes, it really means a lot,” sophomore William Blumberg said. “Even 30 minutes both ways, it is kind of a long drive. We may not say a lot of things about it, but it means a lot to us…They call it the Carolina Tennis Family for a reason. “
After competing in Rome, Ga., last year, the ACC Tennis Championship returned to Cary Tennis Park for the 12th time since 2005. With the home advantage and a large crowd, characterized by family that had traveled far and wide to be present, as well as other athletes from UNC including men's basketball star Luke Maye and volleyball player Kendra Koetter, the North Carolina men’s tennis team thrived.
The No. 6 Tar Heels cruised to a 4-0 shutout win in the quarterfinals against N.C. State on Friday night and followed it with a 4-0 encore performance in the semifinals against Florida State on Saturday afternoon.
“Florida State is a really good team, a well-coached team, and we knew it would be a battle,” head coach Sam Paul said. “We’re happy to be moving on.”
On both nights, the Tar Heels grabbed the doubles point. In comparison to their Friday night battle that went into a tiebreak, the duo of junior Blaine Boyden and first-year Benjamin Sigouin pulled out a quick 6-2 win against FSU. On Court One, senior Robert Kelly and Blumberg clinched the doubles point with another 6-2 win.
“We got off to a great start in doubles…,” Paul said. “I thought we played well up and down the line.”
Singles proved to be more of a struggle for some in comparison to the doubles matches. First-year Mac Kiger breezed through his match, pushing UNC to a 2-0 lead after a 6-2, 6-1 win on Court Six while Kelly closely followed with a 7-5, 6-2 victory of his own.
Kelly had found himself in a drought the last several weeks. More often than not, his matches were left unfinished once one of the teams clinched the fourth point. Over the last two days, the team's lone senior has found his momentum again, winning 6-4, 7-5, on Friday night before clinching the victory on Saturday.
“It’s a little bit like a snowball when you get that momentum and start feeling good, you can really go after your shots,” Kelly said after his quarterfinals match on Friday night. “He dipped his head a little bit and I just was loose and hitting it.”
Once UNC went up 3-0 against Florida State, it became a challenge to see which Tar Heel would clinch the win. With three courts competing in the third set and Court Three, home of sophomore Simon Soendergaard, in a tiebreak for the second set, there was a race to the finish between the four Tar Heels. No. 3 Blumberg ended up beating his teammates by clinching the win in the third set, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
“I was glad to pull away there,” Blumberg said. “I didn’t mean to steal that from Simon because he was playing a great match and working hard. He played great today. I just got lucky.”
Despite a tense atmosphere with high stakes, the Tar Heels were calm, taking each serve, hit and match one step at a time. Because of this, the team’s talent shone in collective and individual levels.
Kelly was able to get back on track by shifting his mentality away from the score and focusing on each point, which ultimately led to his wins on Friday and Saturday. Sigouin, despite not finishing either day, has impressed through his flashy play that comes out at times that fans least expect it.
During his second set on Friday night, Sigouin was fighting through a long struggle. As the ball came over the net, instead of moving a few steps to the side, the first-year nonchalantly spread his legs and hit a tweener.
For the first time since 2014 when they fell to Virginia, the Tar Heels will compete in the title match against No. 1 Wake Forest on Sunday afternoon, a team that beat UNC 4-3 in the regular season. With the theme of redemption on its mind, the team has a slightly different mentality heading into the final match.
“I can’t wait for this one,” Blumberg said. “They got us in a tight one last time, 4-3. Both teams played pretty well, and I can’t wait…It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a war, but this is what we train for. This is what I love.”
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