Growth & Grit Push Men’s Tennis Into Sweet 16 Once Again

The University of North Carolina men’s tennis team in 2022 has treated fans to a thrill ride, one of the highlight seasons in the rich history of Carolina tennis that includes plenty of success, especially recently.

Perhaps no Tar Heel team has grown as a group or improved on the court as much as the 2021-22 squad, which will make its eighth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 on Friday at No. 2 seed Florida. This was no easy trip to the Sweet 16, however.

From the beginning, head coach Sam Paul and longtime associate head coach Tripp Phillips knew it was going to be a different type of team than the veteran group of the last few years. They needed to replace a lode of talent lost to graduation and professional tennis after the 2020-21 season.

William Blumberg, the most decorated player in program history as a 10-time All-America, graduated and has moved on to success in the pro ranks. Experienced, steady talent Josh Peck also graduated, as did Simon Soendergaard, who had earned All-America honors in doubles and was a solid singles starter as well. Later, rising junior Rinky Hijikata decided to forego his remaining college eligibility and turn pro, a decision proven wise by his quick success on the singles circuit.

That’s at least half of the singles lineup from the previous year and a group that collectively earned 12 All-America honors. A lot to replace, in other words.

Paul, Phillips and Carolina had much work to do to live up to recent Carolina standards.

Every team deals with injuries in the Fall, but the Tar Heels got the bug early. UNC saw its projected top two players in their 2021-22 lineup miss all or most of Fall individual play. Benjamin Siguouin missed the entire Fall, and Brian Cernoch missed 10 weeks with a stress fracture.

“Tripp has done such an outstanding job with this group,” Paul said. “He’s proven over the years to be a tremendous recruiter, and what also is so valuable are his communication skills and the relationships he develops with our guys, which pay huge dividends on the court. From where this team was in the Fall to where it is today in the NCAA Tournament is quite a difference. The team put in the work. “

Sigouin and Cernoch’s recovery efforts paid off as they rebounded quickly once indoor play began in January, eventually trading spots at the top of he singles lineup throughout much of the Spring despite their Fall absences. Senior Mac Kiger stepped into a larger role than he’s ever played in the past, ably handling the duties at No. 3 singles. Ditto for sophomore Logan Zapp (No. 4), Anuj Watane (No. 5) and Peter Murphy (No. 6) at their respective singles slots as the singles lineup settled by midseason.

Carolina started the season 5-1, but the home loss to Ohio State in the ITA Kickoff Weekend was an early bump in the road that prevented the Tar Heels from defending their 2021 ITA Indoor national title. The fifth win of the year was a big one at home, however, handing 13th-ranked South Carolina its first loss of the season behind a big win by Cernoch.

UNC then stumbled and lost three in a row and four out of five after the win over the Gamecocks, dropping the Tar Heels to 6-5 after a home loss to Virginia in early March.

The 2021-22 team seems to respond well to adversity, however, rebounding by winning eight of the final 10 matches to close the regular season, then advancing to the ACC Championship final for the second year in a row, once again against the Cavaliers.

“They really bought in and devoted everything,” Paul said. “Of course, winning helps, but we gained some momentum that’s pushed us here in the postseason.”

It all culminated with the thriller of a win last Saturday against Pac-12 regular season champ Arizona that sent the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 once again. Moved indoors at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center due to rain, Carolina won the doubles point before outlasting the Wildcats in a marathon match, 4-1, when Peter Murphy won the clincher.

“The guys have worked so hard and grown so much mentally,” Paul said. “It makes it extra gratifying for me to see how happy Benjamin Sigouin was after we beat Arizona, for example. The look on his face di lui, that smile was such a thrill to see. And it wasn’t just him, it was all the guys. It was a wonderful moment. I’m so happy for this team and everything it’s achieved so far.

“And that’s an outstanding Arizona team we beat,” Paul continued. “To win the regular season in that conference is a huge achievement, because history proves that conference has produced so many national champions and so many great teams over the years.”

The Tar Heels will return to the court on Friday at 5 pm in Gainesville, Fla., Against the formidable Gators, ranked No. 2 in the nation by the ITA. Carolina has won 12 of its last 15 matches and is 18-8 this season.

The winner of Friday’s match will advance to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., The following weekend for the conclusion of the NCAA Championship.

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