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Wednesday May 31st

UNC men's tennis closes out award-filled season with NCAA third round loss to USC

<p>Senior Robert Kelly hits a backhand against Georgia Tech on April 14 at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.</p>
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Senior Robert Kelly hits a backhand against Georgia Tech on April 14 at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.

WINSTON-SALEM — It wasn’t what they wanted. It wasn’t what they dreamed. It was just the cards they were dealt. 

The No. 6 North Carolina men’s tennis team headed into the NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen matchup for the sixth year in a row with high hopes; however, the result stunned the team.

The Tar Heels fell 4-2 to No. 10 Southern California on Friday morning at Wake Forest. Their season was over. 

“It sucks,” sophomore William Blumberg said. “It stinks. I love the team so much, and they put in so much work and so many morning hits, extra runs and bikes. It stings, but we’ll use this as motivation moving forward.”

The loss wasn’t because UNC gave up. It wasn’t because of crucial mistakes. The team was simply outplayed by the efficient Trojan team. 

“It was a tough match, but give USC credit,” senior Robert Kelly said. “They were good and came out great. They jumped on us early and good in singles all across the board.”

The downfall began in doubles. The first to fall was junior Blaine Boyden and first-year Benjamin Sigouin. Despite closing the gap from behind, the duo lost 6-4. Sophomore Simon Soendergaard missed out in doubles, and junior Anu Kodali took his place on Court Three with first-year Mac Kiger. Their 7-6 loss in a tiebreak sealed North Carolina’s fate as USC took the doubles point. 

The doubles point has proven time and time again to be crucial for the Tar Heels. Out of their six losses, the team dropped doubles in four of them. Three out of those four turned out to be close finishes in matches against Wake Forest (regular season), Texas, and Sunday’s match against USC. 

Doubles tends to set the tone for the rest of the match, giving the winner traction as they head into singles. But the momentum felt like it was in UNC’s favor at the beginning of singles. 

“The doubles point was big,” head coach Sam Paul said. “The thing about our team is that they don’t quit.”

For a majority of the first set, the Tar Heels were in the lead on the first four courts. Blumberg was the first Tar Heel to finish, evening out the team score to 1-1 after his 6-3, 6-0 victory. Kelly finished second, finishing his team career with a 7-5, 6-4 loss to go down 2-1. 

Kiger leveled the playing field to 2-2 after straight 6-4 set victories. Sigouin fell 7-5, 7-6 with a tiebreak in the second set, pushing USC in the lead. All eyes turned to Courts Three and Five where Soendergaard and Boyden were battling it out in the third set to keep their team alive. Ultimately, Boyden sealed the Trojan’s victory with an ending score of 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, leaving Soendergaard’s match unfinished with him down 0-2. 

Despite a heartbreaking end to the season that left the team and fans stunned, the final match didn't define the team. The Tar Heels may have started out rusty at the beginning of the season,  Kelly said, but they hit their stride midway through the season and brought home plenty of awards along the way. 

“We have had some ups and downs and been dealt some injuries along the way,” Blumberg said. “But we always believe in the saying ‘Next man up’ and I believe our guys did an unbelievable job preparing and making sure they were ready.”

“I just love each and every teammate and am so proud of everyone.” 

This season, UNC brought home the ACC Freshman of the Year (Sigouin) and ACC Player of the Year (Blumberg), and it had the only player in the country to be ranked No. 1 in singles and doubles this season in Blumberg. North Carolina shared the ACC regular season championship, garnering the most ACC wins in program history. Kiger and Sigouin also shared the best ACC singles winning percentage by a first-year in 2018. 

The team finished with a 24-6 record, with notable records from five out the the six primary singles players. No. 3 Blumberg finished with 21-3 record, while his No. 2 doubles partner No. 90 Kelly finished 15-7. Boyden was almost undefeated, ending with a 23-2 record. The two first-years No. 32 Sigouin and Kiger also had standout performances, finishing 16-4 and 15-4 respectively. 

While each player can bring their A-game, there is always something that holds the team together. For UNC, it’s head coach Sam Paul. 

“The glue that holds the team together is Coach Paul,” Blumberg said. “Coach is one of the best people you could ever come across in your life, and if you get to know him, you are lucky.”

“He cares about each of us as a team but as individuals and cares about us as whole people and not just as tennis players. He is an incredible person and someone that I care about very much.” 

The fan base and comradery on the team is enough to show the impact of the Tar Heels thanks to the coaching from Paul. 'All heart, Tar Heel' has been the team’s motto all season, and during Sunday’s matchup, it exhibited the phrase in more ways than one. The team kept fighting, even if it couldn't prevent what was coming ahead.

“We are fighting for things that are bigger than us and to give up would be the biggest disrespect to everyone that believes in us and that is not an option,” Blumberg said. “We will always fight and give it our all and I believe we did that (Sunday) and no matter the situation it's always ‘All heart Tar Heel.’” 

The team embodied their motto throughout the season, but especially on Sunday. Sophomore Kavir Kumar stood behind the net of Court One encouraging his teammate, Blumberg, and helped him find his rhythm. Sophomore Ladd Harrison stood on Court Two, watching and cheering on Soendergaard, while the rest of the team gathered on the sidelines to hype up Boyden during the final stretch. 

“The team has impacted me tremendously as a person on and off the court,” Blumberg said. “They have shown me what true hard work and sacrifice is. They have helped me to grow as a leader and as a friend.”

“It's easy to get lost among the season but the team means the absolute world to me, and I love each and every guy like my brothers. They will be part of my family forever.”

Several of the tennis players’ families traveled from far and wide to Winston-Salem for the early morning game. For some of the players, family was exactly what they needed after a heartbreaking loss. 

Once Blumberg finished his match, the first thing he did when he came off the court was hug his mom, who was sitting front and center in the bleachers in front of Court One. As the team left the locker room at the end of the match, different players searched for comfort in their families as their season came to a sudden end. Blumberg headed straight for his mom’s open arms.

“That’s what stings the most,” Blumberg said. “It’s the Carolina tennis family . . . It means the world they came out. She means a lot.” 

Although the team’s season may be over, three Tar Heels have the opportunity to continue playing. Kelly, Blumberg, and Sigouin all have received bids for the NCAA tournament singles play. In doubles, the duo of Kelly and Blumberg also qualified with an automatic bid. 


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