If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
For graduate student Makenna Jones and sophomore Elizabeth Scotty, learning how to persevere in the face of defeat was how they brought home a national title for UNC women’s tennis.
After breezing through the NCAA regionals at the start of May, the undefeated, No. 1 seed UNC women’s tennis team traveled down to Orlando, Florida, for the national championships. Over two weeks, the Tar Heels played in the team tournament, then participated in the singles and doubles championships.
In the team tournament, UNC defeated California in the round of 16 and Duke in the quarterfinals, then faced Pepperdine in the semifinals.
It was in this round that the Tar Heels' momentum came to a stop as the Waves stole the doubles point, the first that UNC had lost since facing Texas in February.
“The doubles is such a crapshoot,” head coach Brian Kalbas said. “And when you do lose a doubles point, there’s not a lot of room for error.”
UNC couldn’t notch the win after dropping that initial point, losing three of the six singles courts. The 4-3 loss to Pepperdine snapped the Tar Heels' historic 48-match win streak and cost them a ticket to the finals.
“We headed into Orlando undefeated as a team,” Scotty said. “Me and everyone else thought we would get a national title and it’d be from the team, so to lose in the semifinals was really tough.”
But the athletes did not have time to dwell on the team’s loss — the singles and doubles competitions began after just one day of turnaround.
No. 32 ranked Jones lost in the first round of singles and subsequently injured her leg. Defeated and exhausted, she rallied yet again for the doubles championship the following day with Scotty. Despite the pressure, Jones remained in a positive mindset to soak in her final days as a UNC women's tennis player.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go out in the doubles and I’m going to have fun and I’m going to enjoy this,’” Jones said. “Because I never knew what day could be my last day.”
Jones and Scotty were a relatively new pair, only debuting their partnership in February. Scotty said her aggressive style from the baseline complements Jones’ quick, smart moves at the net, giving the pair instant chemistry on the court.
In their first two matches, the No. 4-ranked duo fell behind in the initial sets but came back from both deficits to advance to the quarterfinals. They finally settled in and played confidently through the next two rounds, earning two straight-set victories against Virginia and N.C. State.
“You talk about a symphony, like sweet music playing together,” Kalbas said. “That’s how they were. They moved together, they covered for each other, personality-wise they just did a great job of understanding what they needed to do point to point.”
Then came the doubles finals — the Tar Heels' last chance to take home a title. Their opponents were none other than Texas’ rookie duo of Kylie Collins and Lulu Sun — the same pair that UNC lost its last doubles point to in February and UNC's other doubles team, Sara Daavettila and Cameron Morra, lost to in the round of 16.
Jones and Scotty fell behind 3-0 in the opening set but fought back against the Texas tandem to tie the score 3-3. They then forced a tiebreaker, winning seven of the eight points to claim the first set, 7-6.
Texas answered with a victory in the second set, 6-4, putting the national title in the hands of a super-tiebreaker third set.
The teams went back and forth relentlessly, tying the score 8-all. Jones and Scotty used all the stamina they had left to answer with two last points to clinch the national title.
“Before the tiebreaker, (Coach Kalbas) said, ‘Brave teams are the ones that come out with the wins in the breakers,’” Jones said. “And me moving on match point was basically my way of being bold, and it did pay off in the end.”
With that, UNC secured the program's second-ever NCAA doubles title. In their 2020-2021 season, the Tar Heels went 30-1 and finished as ITA's No. 2 team in the nation, the best in program history.
Even after a long season with a target on their backs, the Tar Heels managed to persevere through an NCAA tournament marked by tough tennis, injuries and shocking losses.
And being brave did pay off in the end.
“You can always come back,” Scotty said. “You can always finish on a high note.”