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'Small margins': UNC men's tennis falls to defending national champions Virginia

UNC graduate student Will Peters swings to strike the ball during a singles match against North Carolina Central in the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2024. UNC won 4-0.

Will Peters was perplexed. 

During changeovers in the third set of his singles match, the graduate student sat next to the chair with head coach Sam Paul and assistant coach Robert Kelly standing over him. Peters was struggling. Games were snowballing. He and his coaches were searching for answers. 

“We’re talking a little bit of strategy,” Paul said. “We’re talking a little bit of ‘How you feeling on the court.’ We’re talking a little bit of just motivation. ‘Hey man, you can do it.’”

On one occasion in between points, as the match (and match at large) was slipping away, Paul walked across the court near the baseline and offered one word of encouragement to Peters: “fight.”

Paul said he liked the fight from Peters and his team, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the third-ranked defending national champions Virginia on Friday at the Chewning Tennis Center. After winning the first set, Peters dropped the second and was shut out in the third, allowing the Cavaliers to clinch the decisive point and win the match, 4-2. Sophomores Benjamin Kittay and Will Jansen lost their matches in straight sets while graduate Karl Poling won the Tar Heels’ sole singles point.

Before Virginia took control of the match in singles, North Carolina got off to a good start — winning the doubles point. Paul said he has been pleased with his team’s improvement in doubles over the past month. 

“We had a great doubles point,” Poling said. “Had good energy up and down all three courts.”

You could see in warmups doubles was a point of emphasis. Like a well-oiled machine, the team rotated through a drill at the net in which players volleyed several fast-paced balls in quick succession. 

That drill paid off. 

With the doubles point on the line, Jansen and Poling were locked in an intense battle. The match was even at 5-5 when they faced three break points. With a couple big serves, they came back to level the game at 40-40 and then won it with an ace to keep the match on serve.

The match then went to a tiebreak. On match point, Jansen came to the net. He hit a perfectly placed volley — just like in warmups — between the Cavaliers to win the match and the point. He dropped his racquet and did a shimmy celebration before holding his hand up to his ear.

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Jansen, the Tar Heels top-ranked player, has been dealing with a shoulder injury and didn't play in the previous match. It didn’t show on Friday.

“It’s good to get him back on the court and play,” Paul said. “He gives a boost to everybody.”

Despite having opportunities, North Carolina could not get over the hump in singles. Jansen was up a break in the second set. Graduate Phillip Jordan served for the second set after losing the first. 

“I think we were fighting pretty well up and down the line,” Poling said. “It’s just small margins. We were one or two points away from things maybe turning on a few courts.”

But the Cavaliers were just too much. Paul credited Virginia for digging in and playing a good match.

The Tar Heels are still off to a good start in ACC play, having won their first two matches against Georgia Tech and Clemson. Moving forward, Paul said he wants to see his players manage their games better and improve their shot selection.

“There’s always a few small things to improve on and get back to work,” Poling said. “I think we’re getting better over the course of the season, so I think we’re gonna make some big jumps.”

@dthsports |