Walking onto the court to face off against any opponent can be nerve-wracking, but the North Carolina women’s tennis team has a tactic to calm down early on in the match. The strategy is simple: always win the doubles point.
That doubles point proved instrumental in Sunday’s 4-0 win over Louisville, in which the No. 1 Tar Heels increased their doubles point record to a perfect 17-0 this season.
This isn’t just something that happened out of the blue for the Tar Heels (16-1, 4-0 ACC), but rather took months of practice and the development of good relationships between teammates.
When junior Makenna Jones and sophomore Alle Sanford took the court against the Cardinals, they had very rarely paired up for doubles before. Despite a lack of experience together, Jones and Sanford managed to secure a 6-0 win.
Jones said the team switches doubles partners frequently, and that it isn’t too much of an issue, because the group is very close. Sanford echoed this sentiment, and said she was more relaxed going into singles after helping win the doubles point for UNC.
“I think with college tennis, just getting the doubles point is such an advantage for winning matches," Sanford said. "We won every single one in national indoors, and it put us in pretty good positions going into singles. A lot of teams are really good, not only doubles players, but have a lot of strong singles, so any points we can get on the board is important.”
However, the Tar Heels weren’t always this strong in doubles. Jones said her first year wasn’t a great year for the team in doubles performances, but that the improvements were worth it.
“The team’s come a long way," Jones said. "My freshman year, I don’t think we won the doubles point nearly as much as we have these last two years, so I think that’s been a big improvement of ours. It’s not everything, but it helps a lot, and it gets you excited and kind of takes the weight off the shoulders."
North Carolina head coach Brian Kalbas cited an emphasis on doubles in practice as the reason for the team's success this season.
“The biggest thing — we’ve spent a lot of time on it, we’ve put a significance on it, we’ve worked on becoming more aggressive and getting more active at the net and I think the chemistry of our players are really gelling well,” Kalbas said.
Winning the doubles point decreases the stress of the singles matches, by reducing the number of courts the Tar Heels need to win on. Instead of having to win four singles matches, they only have to win three to secure victory.
On Sunday, with the momentum of the doubles point, UNC won all the first sets of singles matches on every court and forced the Cardinals to retire three courts in the second set. The Tar Heels didn't give Louisville a single opportunity to get on the score board, with No. 5 Alexa Graham winning, 6-3, 6-0, No. 122 Sanford winning, 6-1, 6-2, and first-year Sophia Patel winning, 6-1, 6-2.
The doubles win wouldn’t be possible without team chemistry. Kalbas said his players are getting along well, and that the clicking of personalities allows him to try different combinations, like the Jones and Sanford partnership, in doubles matches. However, Kalbas emphasized the need to stay focused after winning doubles.
“We can’t rely on the doubles and we don’t rely on the doubles, but we try and start off the doubles with the right energy, the right execution and the right intensity, and we’ve been doing that well,” Kalbas said.
With 10 matches remaining in the ACC regular season, UNC's domination in doubles will be crucial in maintaining its position as the No. 1 team in the country, and going far in the postseason.
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