After a strong finish in spring 2021, the UNC men’s tennis team will begin its season Friday with a roster composed of impressive first-year talent and key returning seniors.
The team finished the 2021 season ranked No. 6 in the final Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll. UNC ranked ahead of all other ACC teams.
The Tar Heels will look toward the NCAA championships this spring, but they have a long road ahead to prepare. The team’s fall schedule includes nine multi-day tournaments with stops at Arkansas, Florida State, Elon and Vanderbilt. The last tournament of the fall is set for the first week of November, hosted at the home territory of Wake Forest.
To kick off the season, the Tar Heels will play in the Duke Invitational in Cary.
The team will add two new players to the roster, first-years Casey Kania and Chris Li.
Li, a native of Lima, Peru, worked his way up to the No. 1 ranking in South America by the age of 15. Li has also proven his success in the United States, winning his first International Tennis Federation event in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2020 before the season was canceled due to COVID-19.
Kania also brings impressive talent. The Connecticut native attended Cheshire Academy in Middlefield, where he was named a National High School All-American by the National High School Tennis Foundation.
While new talents will look to make their mark on the program, the team also features returning players with strong track records. The lineup this year will include three seniors and three juniors.
Extended NCAA eligibility rules due to COVID-19 will bring further experience the to lineup this season, as seniors return to take advantage of their extra eligibility. Fifth-year senior Benjamin Sigouin was ranked No. 41 in ITA preseason singles rankings, while senior Brian Cernoch — a two-time All-American — was also recognized as an important player to watch, ranking No. 44 on the ITA’s preseason singles list.
Cernoch and returning junior, Rinky Hijikata, will both look to build on their national successes from last season. Cernoch and his partner, William Blumberg, advanced all the way to the doubles quarterfinals in the 2021 NCAAs, and Cernoch later finished the season ranked No. 4 in doubles nationally.
Hijikata earned All-American honors in singles last season when he finished the season ranked as the No. 22 singles player after advancing to the round of 16 in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. He comes into the 2021-22 season as a key player to watch after his strong showings in the offseason. Over Labor Day weekend, Hijikata won abroad in Switzerland at the M25 Sierre Tournament hosted by the ITF. He was the outright singles winner there and rose to a career-high No. 478 in the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings following the win.
The winningest coach in team history, head coach Sam Paul, will return for his 29th season as the men’s tennis coach. Named the National Coach of the Year in 2017 by the ITA, he also holds more wins than any other active ACC coach.
As the Tar Heels begin the season with both hungry newcomers and savvy veterans, one thing remains true for all — the men’s tennis program has the potential to perform at the highest level and bring both regional and national titles home to North Carolina.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.