Taylor Linton | April 4, 2019
In the buildup to the 2019 NCAA Division I Tennis Championships, set to be held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., for the first time May 16-25, USTA.com will feature some of the nation's top teams in this "NCAA Contenders" series. Next up are the University of North Carolina women.
The University of North Carolina women’s team has faced an incredibly challenging season, competing against highly ranked opponents and playing 23 matches so far in 2019. Although the schedule has been tough, the Tar Heels have aced it; the defending ACC Tournament champions currently sit atop the ACC standings with a 10-0 conference record (22-1 overall) and were ranked No. 2 in the latest Tennis Channel/USTA College Tennis Top 25 poll.
Head coach Brian Kalbas, who is in the midst of his 16th season at North Carolina, is proud of the way his team has navigated the onslaught of matches. ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s interesting that there hasn’t been a match, whether it’s against a non-ranked team or a top-ranked team, that they haven’t brought their highest level of intensity,” Kalbas said. “It’s neat to see the consistency of the level of competitiveness they’re bringing, no matter who they’re playing.”
The Tar Heels made it to the championship match at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Indoor Championship in February, before succumbing to Georgia in a close, 4-3 decision. Though it is, to date, their only loss on the season, junior Makenna Jones (pictured above) sees the overall tournament as a positive.
“Honestly, even though National Indoors may not have ended the way we wanted to, that was probably the highlight of the season just because it was our first big trip as a team and we got to spend a lot of time together,” she said. “We came together as a team, as Coach Kalbas likes to say, we found our identity there.”
Jones, who was the No. 2 seed in the NCAA individual singles tournament in 2018, helped her team get over the final hurdle at the 2018 ACC Tournament, where she was named MVP.
“It was a surreal experience, helping my team win that, especially after beating two teams that we lost to in the regular season,” she said.
With this year’s ACC tournament set to kick off on April 17, junior Alexa Graham thinks the difficult schedule has been beneficial in prepping the team for what’s to come in the future.
“We’ve played six matches in two weeks, which, in my time at Carolina, has been the most we’ve played in such a short period of time,” she said. “In reality, in the NCAA tournament and the ACC tournament we’ll be playing every day for four matches at least. It’s definitely making us tougher and preparing us for that type of situation.”
Graham, who has been named ACC Player of the Week four times, held a 23-match singles winning streak last season. But her success and growth at UNC has not just been on the tennis court.
“I’ve grown and gained independence from being in college,” she said. “Coming to Carolina, I had maybe done laundry by myself twice. I’ve really grown as a person and I’ve gained a lot of independence.”
Both Graham and Jones hold the upmost confidence in their team for what’s to come in the next few weeks. Although their schedule is lightening up in terms of the number of matches, the quality of their opponents will remain.
“Now in the next couple of months, we have the ability to know that we’re competitively driven and we need to continue to get in really good shape, both physically and mentally, for the stretch run for us to do well at the end of the year,” Kalbas said.
The opposition will only get tougher in the post-season. Seeded second in the 2018 NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels faced an early exit in Round 3, at the hands of eventual champions Stanford. They are on course for another high seed at the 2019 tournament, where they will seek their first NCAA team title.
For more on the NCAA Championships, including ticket information, visit the USTA National Campus website.
(Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina)