William Blumberg stood on the sidelines of the indoor courts after finishing his match, watching his teammate and close friend Blaine Boyden’s every move.
It was May 2017, and the North Carolina men’s tennis team was tied with Georgia, 3-3. Whoever won on Court 6 would send their team to battle for the NCAA Championship.
As Boyden hit the ball to the far side of the court, just out of reach of the Bulldogs player, UNC was headed to its first NCAA Championship. Blumberg, who was a first-year at the time, ran onto the court without hesitation, followed by his teammates. He was the first to reach Boyden, who jumped and embraced his teammate in midair.
Two years later, a picture of that moment is hanging in Boyden and Blumberg’s apartment.
Blumberg almost missed out on that game and the chance to play for UNC. He was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world as a junior player, playing international tennis matches as a teenager. He’s hit with Mike and Bob Bryan, the most successful doubles tennis players in America, Novak Djokovic, and even Roger Federer.
So why is the Greenwich, Conn., native in Chapel Hill, competing on Court 1 for singles and doubles, instead of going pro?
Because he doesn't want others to think of him as just an elite athlete.
There’s more to him than that label.
Heaven on Earth
Blumberg can’t help but smile as he rolls the windows down.
He leans his head out the window of the car as his family gets to the exit for Fish Road in Rhode Island. The salty ocean smell hits his nose, and the sun beats down on the car. At the end of the road at the bottom of the hill, there’s a sign that says, “Little Compton.”
His smile grows even bigger. He’s finally at his family’s vacation home.
“It’s something, and a place that you’ll never understand until you go there,” Blumberg said.
This small town holds a piece of Blumberg's heart. Some of his oldest friendships were formed on Little Compton’s tennis courts and golf courses. This is where he fell in love with tennis and became a scratch golfer.
He, his brothers Alex and Andrew and his friends would play on the beach all morning, eating a marshmallow fluff sandwich or two, but once the clock neared 3:30 p.m., they dropped everything. With sand in their shoes, the kids would run to the country club in order to make it in time for AT’s, a tennis clinic for all ages. The group would then play golf, get up the next morning and repeat.
William and Little Compton are almost synonymous to his friends.
“When I think about Little Compton, I think about Will immediately,” said Michael Marzonie, William’s best friend since kindergarten. “I affiliate him with that spot because it’s so down to Earth and so genuine. There’s nothing flashy about it.”
Here, William isn’t the big-name tennis player. He can relax his shoulders and be William, or “Bops” as his family calls him.
“William Blumberg is the tennis player and who people know,” said Andrew Blumberg, William’s oldest brother. “The Bops is who William is when you really know him.”
Rediscovering his happiness
William sat on the bleachers, watching his brothers play tennis.
He longed to join them, to be like them. Sports was his way to be seen as equal and to hang out with them. William became a fiery competitor, making it hard to get him off of the court.
“He was always hassling me to stay after work for another 20 minutes to play another bunch of baseline games with him,” said Pat McNally, a tennis pro from Little Compton. “It’s funny how the tides have turned because now I’m begging him to stay and play with me.”
William found success early on and started traveling in the junior circuit regularly, resulting in him missing days of school. When he was in eighth grade, his school made Blumberg choose — tennis or academics. He chose to do online schooling and continue traveling for tennis.
He quickly found international success. At age 17, he made the quarterfinals of singles and doubles at Junior Wimbledon and made the finals of the Junior French Open Doubles with now pro tennis player Tommy Paul. William even won the Junior Davis Cup for the U.S.
All signs pointed toward him staying a professional tennis player. But his body suddenly held him back.
William would come home feeling awful, his mother, Amy Blumberg, said. His parents sent him to the doctor for more antibiotics, but even when he competed in the junior Wimbledon and French Open, he was miserable.
The doctors eventually discovered that he had infectious mononucleosis, commonly known as mono. But the diagnosis came too late. William was tired of people berating him in practice while his body struggled. He was burned out.
“I was depressed, and I hated the sport,” he said.
William and his oldest brother, Andrew, have always shared a love for sayings. As his little brother struggled through the hard times, the famous Rev. Robert Schuller quote captured how William would persevere, according to Andrew.
“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
William went home to Greenwich High School for his senior year, but it was a while before he picked up a racket again. It was his dad who persuaded him to go out and hit a few times a day. As each day passed, William found his love for the sport again.
“Without that time period, I wouldn’t be the man I am today,” he said.
William decided to join his high school’s tennis team, and from there, he fell back in love with the sport and thrived in the team atmosphere that was so different from his solo days with the U.S. Tennis Association.
His next step was as unexpected as his setback. He chose to go to college rather than remain on the pro circuit, and it turned out to be the best thing that’s happened to him.
William wanted to mature more, both on and off the court. As his USTA friends like No. 29 Frances Tiafoe, No. 57 Reilly Opelka and No. 65 Taylor Fritz dominate the pro circuit and William is making a historical mark at UNC, blossoming in the team atmosphere.
The 6-foot-2 New Englander has broken records. He was the first player in program history to reach the NCAA singles championship match. He was named ITA National Rookie of the Year, ACC Freshman of the Year, 2018 ACC Player of the Year, and ranked as high as No. 1 in both singles and doubles during his 2018 spring season.
Now, the junior is ranked No. 19 in singles, No. 27 in doubles along with Boyden and No. 440 in the ATP world rankings.
“With all of the success he’s had as a player, he’s certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player to ever play at Carolina,” UNC head coach Sam Paul said.
UNC men’s basketball players Luke Maye and Andrew Platek sit along the sidelines with Austin Cobb and UNC men’s golfer Austin Hitt, all four cheering as loudly as they can for their friend William.
“He’s energetic, likes to get into it and show a little emotion, which I feel like I need to do more of,” Maye said. “He really makes me want to be better.”
When they first met the brown-haired, blue-eyed Northerner, they didn’t know he was the next rising star on the tennis team.
“There’s this guy, who not many people know, could be a professional tennis player right now," Cobb said. "But just hanging out with him, you’d have no idea.”
However, some still believe collegiate tennis pales in comparison to what William gave up.
“There are people congratulating him or angry with him,” said Asher Dawson, William's friend from Little Compton. “They DM him on Instagram saying, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t win your match. I lost this X amount of money,’ and he has to filter out that noise.”
But his friends and family are the only voices that matter. They would do anything to support him, and the feeling is mutual. As his girlfriend, Mary Bryan Pope, described, William cares deeply, whether it’s about family and friends or tennis.
“If you’re in his corner, he’s going to care for you with all he’s got,” Boyden said.
Moments like this showcase how meaningful friendships are to William, a love so strong that he wanted to get a tattoo that reminded him of his friends and family.
It’s small enough that no one would notice unless they were looking for it. The tattoo is hidden when his sleeve is down, something William loves. Etched in his mom’s handwriting on his right bicep is the word “WE,” the letters merged together so the writing is connected.
“Whatever happens and you’re there for one another, that’s my ‘WE,’” William said. “It’s just a subtle reminder that you’re not alone and you’ve got people around you and you’ve got the people who love and care about you.”
Every so often, the junior will grab his arm, rubbing where the tattoo is. It reminds him of his family, who is the center of his “WE,” and his friends. He’s never alone.
“It’s not about me,” William said. “It’s about the 'WE.'"
It's summer at The Daily Tar Heel! That means no print editions until August, but we've still got you covered with a daily digital news report. Check dailytarheel.com or get the news in your inbox five days a week with the DTH at a Glance email newsletter. For a weekly newsletter focused on Orange County news, choose the OC Report.