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Fiona Crawley's fire stirs comeback win for UNC women's tennis at Duke

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UNC senior Fiona Crawley celebrates after her singles match victory against Duke at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024. UNC won 4-1.

DURHAM, N.C. — Fiona Crawley isn’t quiet on the court.

She yells. She jumps in the air. She gestures to the crowd. She even spins like a ballerina when she wins a monumental point. 

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UNC senior Fiona Crawley celebrates after winning a game during a singles match against Duke at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024. UNC won 4-1.

The Tar Heels are used to that. In fact, they feed off it. Head coach Brian Kalbas said the senior’s noise suffocates UNC’s opponents. According to junior Carson Tanguilig, Crawley motivates the team with every cheer and high-five in between points. 

“It’s such a good influence,” Tanguilig said. “Everyone can feel it.”

And on Saturday, North Carolina needed it. No. 8 UNC defeated No. 19 Duke, 4-1, at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Crawley’s singles match not only earned North Carolina its third team point, but her effort set off a wave of team-wide momentum that helped push the other Tar Heels to win close matches. UNC overcame first-set defeats, forced third sets and outlasted the Blue Devils in tiebreakers

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UNC senior Fiona Crawley eyes the ball as she lines up a return shot during a singles match against Duke at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024. UNC won 4-1.

Despite her exuberant cheers, Crawley admitted she has been struggling with her confidence recently. Crawley ended the 2023 season ranked No. 1 in the nation. But this year, at least before Saturday, Crawley said she felt stuck in her own head during every match. 

This season has required adjustments, sure. First, sophomore Reese Brantmeier suffered a season-ending injury. Then, North Carolina lost in the second round of the ITA National Indoor Championship to N.C. State, ending a 4-year streak of winning the title. Last week, the Tar Heels fell to the Wolfpack again, 4-3, in their first ACC loss of the season. 

Losing these matches, Tanguilig said, is not normal for UNC. 

But since the first loss of the season, Crawley said she's been getting extra reps in. She works on her doubles game with Tanguilig. She perfects her skillset in practice. 

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UNC senior Fiona Crawley (right) and junior Carson Tanguilig (left) celebrate their doubles match win against Duke at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024. UNC won 4-1.

Then, heading into the weekend’s rivalry match, she met 1-on-1 with assistant coach Hayley Carter. 

“Hayley sat me down and was like, ‘You need to believe that you can beat any player you play,’” Crawley said. “‘All the way down the line. Anyone.’"

Finally, on Saturday, Crawley said she wasn’t in her head. She played and didn’t think about any outside noise. She was fully present.

After a back-and-forth battle, Crawley secured the first set, 7-5, and marked the victory with her characteristic yell down the court toward her teammates.

But the second set proved to be more elusive. She soon confronted a 5-2 deficit. 

Kalbas said Duke’s Shavit Kimchi dictated the pace and forced Crawley onto her back foot with a mix of backhands down the line and cross-court forehands. The UNC senior became passive with her returns, primarily hitting down the middle of the court and setting up easy shots for Kimchi to pounce on.

But once Crawley took back control of the pace, she used her deep shots to trap Kimchi in the corners of the court. At that point, Kalbas said Crawley refused to miss. She won five straight games. 

When her final return hit its target, she let out her victory cry. Once to the court on her left and then to her right — for everyone to hear. From that point forward, Kalbas said Crawley’s momentum was contagious. 

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UNC senior Fiona Crawley celebrates after winning a game during a singles match against Duke at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024. UNC won 4-1.

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Senior Elizabeth Scotty entered a third set after falling in her first. First-year Thea Rabman won a tiebreak to force a decisive third set. Meanwhile, first-year Tatum Evans was on her way to clinching the match victory. 

And Crawley was there the whole way, yelling and cheering from her emptied court. 

“It’s fucking bigger than the individual,” she said. “That’s what we’re playing for now. That’s what we’re going to do for the rest of the season. This season has looked different than any time I’ve been on the team, but that doesn’t matter.”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com