Playing for UNC means playing to win, especially for the women’s tennis program. The team hasn’t had a win percentage below .800 in the past 10 years and amassed a 48-match win streak during this time.
During its 2020-21 campaign, the team was ranked second in the nation by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and won the doubles national championship.
But things are different now.
Unlike last season's squad, which didn’t lose any players due to extra COVID-19 eligibility, the 2021-22 team is without all-Americans Makenna Jones, Alexa Graham and Sara Daavettila. This not only means shifting around doubles pairs — but shifting a mindset as well.
For this younger team, winning doesn’t define the sport.
“At the end of last year, it was tough just because we wanted to win so bad,” junior Elizabeth Scotty said. “I think this year we don't have as much of that pressure, so when we go out there, we're just going to play freely and play like our game.”
And that they have.
Because the team was not allowed to travel for fall invitationals last season due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year marks its first full season since 2019. Unlike the spring season, which features one-on-one team matches, the fall season involves select individuals traveling to represent the team, often playing multiple matches over a span of a few days. Sophomores Reilly Tran and Fiona Crawley traveled to Milwaukee to participate in their first collegiate invitational on Sept. 18-20.
Both gave stellar performances, clinching the doubles championship and advancing to the finals of the 32-player singles draw. The two were slated to face each other in the singles finale to play for the wild card entry to the 2021 ITA National Fall Championship, but the intensity of play began to impact their health, and the two did not play in the final round.
“I got sick from it because I'm used to going and playing one match and it's a singles or doubles for the team,” Crawley said. “But eight matches in three days was really hard.”
Because both players fell ill, they will likely play each other in Chapel Hill soon for the singles title.
The same weekend, the team also sent some Tar Heels to Greenville, S.C. to participate in the Furman Fall Classic. Among these players were first-years Lindsay Zink and Carson Tanguilig, who both advanced to the finals of their respective singles flights. Tanguilig was also paired with senior Cameron Morra for doubles, and the tandem won the flight 1 doubles title for the weekend.
In preparation for the upcoming invitationals this weekend and a challenging season ahead, the team embodies head coach Brian Kalbas’ philosophy for the year — enjoying the sport and appreciating the perks that come with it.
“We have our own private tennis center at our disposal, we have baskets full of tennis balls, we have coaches willing to work with us,” Scotty said. “Whenever you say ‘Can I get a private at 7 a.m.?’ Coach is like ‘I'll be there; do you want me to pick you up?’”
Enjoyment also means appreciation for team-wide hotel stays, going to restaurants to celebrate tournaments instead of eating takeout and the opportunity to play for an entire fall season.
“Gratitude has become so important in all of our lives because we started realizing how good you have it until you lose it,” Crawley said. “We were so lucky to have a season last year and so lucky to be able to experience this fall season.”
Yes, the UNC women's tennis team currently leads its conference with five consecutive ACC titles. Yes, the team smashed program and conference records last season. But with a new roster and a more normal season ahead, the team looks to relieve the constant pressure of winning to enjoy the time it has together.
“Winning to me is a byproduct of having good players, hard-working, great attitudes and just getting better,” Kalbas said. “It's ultimately our goal, but it's not the end satisfaction.”
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