About a month ago, we mentioned that both the men’s and women’s tennis teams have been among UNC’s most consistently successful programs the past few years, constantly being found among the top of the rankings and making noise in the postseason. You’ll doubtless be glad to know that they’re continuing that trend, as both squads have rolled through the NCAA Tournament’s first three rounds en route to a trip to Orlando for the tournament’s quarterfinals.
The women’s team has consistently been among the best in the country, and right now, there’s nobody hotter. Their overall resume earned them the #2 overall seed in the tournament, and that was only because they had a loss to #1 Georgia, but they entered the tournament as the nation’s first-ranked team and played like it in the Super Regional that they hosted by virtue of being a top-16 team. They made quick work of South Carolina State and Oklahoma, blanking both 4-0, but then had to struggle with both the weather and their opponent, 15th overall seed Oklahoma State, before coming out on top 4-2 in the (program’s 10th straight!) Sweet Sixteen, also played in Chapel Hill. Three of the singles matches were pretty straightforward, two going UNC’s way as Jessie Aney won 6-1, 6-3 and Sara Daavettila cruised 6-2, 6-0. With the singles score 2-1, matches were moved indoors, where Makenna Jones came alive. She had lost her first set 6-7, but took the second in a competitive 6-4 set before handing her opponent a donut to take the third and the match. OSU’s #2 took down Alexa Graham, 6-4, 6-3, making it anybody’s game as attention shifted to doubles courts. All three matches were tightly contested, but UNC came out on top with two victories to one, taking the doubles point and the overall win. UNC stayed unbeaten in doubles and at home on the season en route to the Elite Eight, a trip that tastes especially sweet after their earlier-than-expected exit last year.
Jones is UNC’s #1 player and she has been stellar; she’s the 5th-ranked singles player in the country and has won both her singles matchups so far after being rested against South Carolina State. Alexa Graham at #2 is right behind her; she lost her singles and doubles matches for just the second time all season against the Cowgirls, but she’s the 7th-ranked singles player and she and Jessie Aney form the country’s #2 doubles pairing, so she’s due to bounce back from this. The rest of the team has been incredible as well, clearly, and they’re in good shape as they prepare to take on #7 UCLA.
The men aren’t quite the juggernauts that the women are this year, coming into their tournament as the 9th overall seed. They, too, got to host their first two games. They swept Navy and took down Georgia 4-1 before getting to the real test: USC (Southern California), the all-time leader in NCAA Tournament championships, a team that UNC had never beaten and had in fact knocked the Heels out of last year’s tournament in this same round, and a team that, as the 8th overall seed, had the privilege of hosting this matchup. Needless to say, UNC had a pretty personal interest in taking this matchup, and it wasn’t going to be easy. The doubles point was decided fairly quickly, as UNC took one of the matches 6-2 and another 6-4 to take the early 1-0 lead in the matchup. The Trojans quickly pulled even, though, taking the #6 singles match 6-3, 6-2. From there, it was all Carolina. UNC’s #2, 39th-ranked Ben Sigouin, pulled off a comfortable upset of the nation’s 24th-ranked player, finishing him off 6-0, 6-4, and Josh Peck followed suit on the #3 court after coming out on top in a tight 6-4, 6-4 battle. The other three matches all went to three sets with UNC up 3-1 and needing just one win out of the three to clinch the victory and punch their ticket to Orlando. Brian Cernoch ended up being the hero, winning a third-set tiebreak for a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) result before either of the other two matches could finish (UNC’s #1, William Blumberg, was two breaks up in his third set, for the record). And with that, the Heels had a 4-1 victory and a trip to the tournament quarterfinals for the fifth time in the past 6 years. Adding to the sweetness was that, according to GoHeels.com, this was the first time an NCAA Tournament opponent had ever beaten USC on their home courts. This is the first year the Round of 16 has been played on college campuses rather than a neutral NCAA location, but still, that’s awesome.
Blumberg is UNC’s best singles player, ranked 19th in the country, and he and Blaine Boyden form the nation’s 12th-ranked doubles pairing to boot. He’s been a huge part of the 21-6 Heels’s success this season. Even without the abundance of individual firepower on the women’s side, though, this is a unit that ably supports all of its parts, different guys and groups taking on the burden to win points whenever they need to. We’ll see if it’s enough, as their next test is the country’s top team, Ohio State, in Orlando.
The men’s match will be on Thursday and the women will play on Friday. Check their social media to find ways to livestream, if possible. To both teams, I say good luck, and Go Heels!