Brian Cernoch leaned back ever so slightly, lifting his shirt to his mouth, as a cough racked his body.
Then another. And, another.
The sophomore’s coughs echoed throughout the outdoor courts at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center. He tried to control it while the ball was in play, but as soon as the play was over, the coughing started again.
“I was a little under the weather this past week, but (I was) just trying to come out there and fight,” Cernoch said. “Play my game and do what I could.”
It was evident that the 6-4 win in the first set, and the coughing, started to take a toll on the sophomore. His Hokie opponent started to pull ahead, leaving Cernoch behind in a fit of coughs and in need of a pep talk.
“I just told myself to stay composed," Cernoch said. "That I was doing the right thing, and it just wasn’t working out, and that eventually things would turn.”
And he did fight until the end through the coughs and missed opportunities. Cernoch clinched the match for the Tar Heels after pulling off wins in six straight games to secure the No. 2 North Carolina men’s tennis 6-1 victory over Virginia Tech, extending the team’s undefeated home record in the ACC opener.
“The first outdoor match is always a little bit tricky for us,” head coach Sam Paul said. “I thought we played pretty decently for just now getting outside. We learned some things, too. We got to tighten up, but that’s something we’ll talk about as a team.”
It was messy at times, like when first-year Rinky Hijikata hit doubles partner junior Benjamin Sigouin in doubles. There was a lack of energy, like how courts Four through Six were inconsistent at times during singles. But somehow, the Tar Heels persevered, following Cernoch’s example.
Doubles finished almost as quickly as it started. The No. 4 duo of senior Simon Soendergaard and junior Mac Kiger finished first with a clean 6-2 victory, while No. 16 doubles team senior William Blumberg and Cernoch clinched the "dubs point," in the team's words, a few moments later, 6-3.
Singles, however, was a different story, aside from No. 11 Blumberg who won in straight undefeated sets.
“That’s nearly impossible,” Hijikata said, “but he found a way to do it and get the job done.”
No. 103 senior Josh Peck was the only other Tar Heel to get off the court easily with a 6-2, 6-3 victory. As for everyone else, it was an uphill battle that can be described as effective, but messy at best. With a 3-1 lead, all eyes fell on the lower courts with a few lingering on No. 47 Hijikata’s Court Three once No. 42 Sigouin fell 6-4, 6-2 on Court Two.
“We didn’t play a totally complete match,” Paul said, “but we pulled it back together at certain times.”
After pulling off six home sweeps to open the season without a point being scored against them until Sunday afternoon, questions still remained: Why were the Tar Heels seeming to struggle in their 6-1 win? Was it because it was the first time they had played outdoors this season?
“It’s different,” Hijikata said. “The courts are a little bit bouncier, and it was a little cold today, had a little bit of wind. I’ve played outdoors most of my life. I’ve never really played indoors, so I feel at home out here again.”
Or was it the lack of energy that seemed to catch the team flat-footed at times?
“It’s never easy coming outside and playing your first outdoor match, especially against a really good team with Virginia Tech,” Cernoch said. “We’re ready to get things rolling.”
Whatever it was, the sometimes messy match didn’t seem to faze the team. As they lingered on the courts while some teammates did post-game interviews, there was a sense of joy as they joked with one another.
“I got the win, mate!” Hijikata shouted to his teammates as Cernoch started his interview. “I was happy.”
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