Sunday afternoon could've been a story about Tar Heel upperclassmen taking revenge.
Instead, it was about a pair of first-years that had never been introduced to the rivalry.
After losing to Virginia in the 2017 national championship, 4-2 — and three other times last season — the No. 5 North Carolina men’s tennis team (14-4, 5-1 ACC) finally triumphed over the Cavaliers on Sunday in a 6-1 victory. And first-years Ben Sigouin and Mac Kiger were big reasons why.
The Tar Heels greatly needed this win following a 4-3 loss to No. 1 Wake Forest last Wednesday. UNC lost the doubles point against the Demon Deacons, and head coach Sam Paul took notice.
There was no question about whether UNC’s senior captain Robert Kelly and sophomore William Blumberg would win their doubles match. The third-ranked duo won its doubles comfortably, 6-2. After nearly two years of doubles play together, these two Tar Heels have gelled nicely.
“We’ve been meshing well and moving together just a lot more than last year,” Blumberg said. “We’ve kind of been on the same wavelength.”
Kelly and Blumberg rode that momentum into their individual singles matches. Kelly clinched his match in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. The senior's win was particularly pungent after last year’s pair of losses against Cavalier opponents.
“We definitely had some battles with them last year,” Kelly said, “but this feels really good.”
After winning the first set with admirable ease, No. 2 Blumberg admits he had a “mental lapse” during the second set. His opponent, Carl Soderlund, who is also highly ranked in men’s singles (No. 32), kept the window open, winning a close second set.
“I was never going to give up,” Blumberg said. “I was going to give it all I had.”
Blumberg opened the third set by winning three straight games, breaking serve in the second game. Blumberg pushed on to win the third set and take the match, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.
Blaine Boyden, a junior from Raleigh, also won his singles match, with the second set going into a tiebreaker game. Boyden remains undefeated in singles play (15-0) this season.
The only loss for UNC came from Court Three, where sophomore Simon Soendergaard fell to Virginia's captain, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, after being up 3-1 in the third.
The older Tar Heels' superiority over the Cavaliers would have been moot, however, without the success of their underclassmen cohorts, specifically the first-years. Kelly, Blumberg and Boyden all won their singles matches in the national championship last year.
The remaining effort needed to topple a team like Virginia — a team that had the Tar Heels' number last season — had to come from somewhere. And it came from the young guns.
Paul and UNC’s veteran players all acknowledged the Cavaliers' diminished strength from last year, largely due to the graduation of several vital seniors from their squad. Apart from the major improvements made by older North Carolina players, the addition of several talented youngsters — like Sigouin and Kiger — truly made this revenge victory possible.
“They’re good team guys,” Paul said about the first-years. “That’s what’s impressive about them.”
Winning the first doubles match just moments before Kelly and Blumberg, Kiger and Soendergaard helped generate that much-needed momentum from the doubles point that Paul stressed so heavily.
Kiger matched up against a first-year from Virginia, Jefferson Dockter, in singles play, winning 6-3, 6-3. And after an unfinished doubles match because of the two quick UNC wins on Courts One and Three, Sigouin showed the spectators at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center why he was ranked No. 34 in singles — handing his opponent a loss in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.
Though they seemed to be UNC’s special ingredient for success against the Cavaliers, Kiger and Sigouin humbly gave a lot of credit to their leaders. When asked about his key to success in college play so far, Kiger had nothing but praise for his elder teammates.
“We’ve got some great leaders on the team,” Kiger said. “Both Will and Rob have helped me a lot to get ready for each match, get my mind right.”
Kiger and Sigouin weren't Tar Heels last year. But, as their upperclassmen counterparts point out, they've been an integral part of this team's development — and proved to be exactly what their team needed to seize revenge on Sunday.
"Right from the get-go, they fit right in," Boyden said. "They bring a lot to the table. Both of them are just natural leaders."
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