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Robert Kelly returns to Chapel Hill in new role as assistant men's tennis coach

Robert Kelly UVA

Then senior Robert Kelly served in a men's tennis match against Virginia on April 1, 2018, at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.

After graduating in 2018 as arguably one of the best doubles tennis players at North Carolina, Robert Kelly headed to New York City and joined the world of sales on Wall Street, believing his time in Chapel Hill was over.

That was, until last year.

Following four years in the bustling Big Apple, Kelly found himself running on the fumes of a dwindling passion. Despite the good pay, he never felt the burning desire to go to work every day.

So Kelly decided to go back to something he loves — college tennis, accepting a position as the UNC men’s assistant coach. 

While he received numerous offers from other schools during his search, Kelly said that after North Carolina's head coach Sam Paul and associate head coach Tripp Phillips reached out to him, the decision was a “no brainer.” The Chapel Hill native, three-time All-America honoree and ITA team indoor national champion decided to return home to take on the position for the 2023-24 season.

“When you work with people that you love, and you do something that you care about and have a passion for, it really isn’t work,” Kelly said.

'He's doing what he loves'

While embarking on his own homecoming journey, Kelly has been able to create a place of comfort for current players who know he has their best interests at heart because of his own history in Carolina Blue.

This is especially true for senior Peter Murphy.

“He's doing what he loves, coaching tennis, at the school he loves and has given pretty much everything in his life to be here,” Murphy said. “You realize that within the first five minutes of meeting him.”

Fueled by his devotion to North Carolina and a team that has given him so much, Kelly has already made an impact on the court. 

While at an early season invitational, Murphy lost the first set to a player that he expected to dominate. Seeing his frustration, Kelly sat him down between sets. Along with offering words of encouragement, Kelly highlighted different playing patterns and ways to hit the opposing player’s shots.

Murphy won the next few sets easily.

“Having Rob there to kind of work me through it and then on the encouragement side, and then also kind of [with a] good eye for the game and seeing the strategy part of it as well was super helpful,” Murphy said.

A return to familiarity

Although Kelly has always appreciated the “tranquil” town of Chapel Hill for its beauty and trees, his love for UNC is specifically tethered to the relationships that he formed with his teammates during undergrad. 

Of course, the team bonded over hard practices, wins and losses. But Ronnie Schneider, who was Kelly’s roommate for two years and played at UNC until 2017, said the moments he remembers the most include rushing Franklin Street after the men’s basketball national championship and days spent at the Kelly family pool. 

On lazy Chapel Hill weekends, the backyard of the Kelly household was an oasis for the tennis team. The short ten-minute walk from Kenan Stadium to Kelly's house resulted in long hang-out sessions, contentious games in the pool and the comfort of Kelly’s parentsboth UNC alumni — welcoming them in. 

According to Schneider, Kelly and his family are the definition of North Carolina born and bred in every way.

“Everybody tells you that Carolina’s not a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision,” Schneider said. “But like, it’s true.”

Gearing up for the spring season, Kelly’s impact will likely only grow with his combined tennis talent and love for North Carolina. 

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Whatever the future brings for the tennis team, Kelly is just happy to be a part of it. 

He no longer wakes up longing for the burning passion from his playing days — it's already there, reborn through coaching. Now, Kelly feels like he can give back to a community that has given so much to him.

“I get to go chase my dream, and I get to go do it somewhere I know,” he said. “I love the people [at UNC] and they love me.” 


@dthsports |