By Turner Walston
Hayley Carter's final regular season point as a Tar Heel was, well, quintessential Hayley Carter.
Leading Syracuse's Miranda Ramirez in the second set on Sunday, April 23, Carolina's #1 delivered a slicing ball just into the corner of the service court. Ramirez did well to get to the ball at all, hitting backhand across the net before coming back to neutral. Carter pounced, returning a shot to nearly the same spot, far out of the reach of her opponent.
She strode to the net and shook the hands of Ramirez and the chair umpire, then hugged coach Brian Kalbas. Carter then looked up to the concourse above the court. She clapped and waved, acknowledging the standing ovation that the fans in attendance at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center were giving Carolina's most decorated tennis player.
It wasn't an easy day for Hayley Carter. She was battling an illness, probably a cold, she said, and it was Senior Day, her last regular season match in Chapel Hill. And when she looked up prior to the match, she saw her mother. Alone.
Six weeks ago, Carter's father Steve passed away after complications from surgery. Steve and Sandy Carter had been mainstays at Hayley's matches, and to see one in Chapel Hill without the other was jarring. "I want more than anything for my dad to be here," Carter said after her Senior Day match. "Seeing my mom up in the stands come in all alone definitely got me emotional to start the warm-up."
"It was really tough for Hayley in the beginning, because she would always see her dad up there," Kalbas said. "It's been tough, but she's an incredible person. She cares about this university, cares about this team more than anything. She's going to give her heart and soul."
And though Steve wasn't at his daughter's Senior Day match, Sandy wasn't the only Hayley Carter fan in the stands. Not at all. Carter emailed every professor she'd ever had at Carolina and invited them to the match. She said she had about a 70 percent success rate.
"I'm a little nerdy," she said with a smile afterward. "Some of my best friends these four years have been my professors, and it was a lot of fun for them to come out. I tried to go up and greet them. I invited them just to show how thankful I am for the impact they've had on me, in the classroom and outside of the classroom."
And Carter herself has made an impact, on the court and in the classroom. She's a three-time ITA Scholar-Athlete and ACC Honor roll selection and a 2016 Academic All-America. Last year she was the runner-up in the NCAA singles competition. Carter entered her senior season a win shy of Carolina's record for singles victories. She ended this regular season with 163 career singles wins, setting a new high mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
What Carter has done –and is doing– is unique in college athletics. In basketball, for example, the best player on one team may be tasked with defending the best player on another, but maybe not; perhaps they play completely different positions. In dual-match tennis, the best players face off every time out. Hayley Carter played the bulk of her first two seasons at #2, with former teammate and current pro Jamie Loeb at #1. Carter played 28 matches at #2 singles as a freshman, where she was 26-2. She was 17-4 at #2 as a sophomore and 2-0 at #1. When Loeb turned pro, Carter moved to #1, where she has remained entrenched for two seasons. Last year she was 27-1 at #1, the only loss coming to Miami's Stephanie Wagner in three sets fourteen months ago.
This year, she's 25-0, and just one completed match has gone to three sets. That was at ITA National Indoors against #1-ranked Francesca Di Lorenzo of Ohio State. It was the fourth time Carter and Di Lorenzo had faced off in college competition, and Carter had lost all three previous times. But in team competition, Carter summoned something intangible to gut out a win. "She'd never beaten the girl before," Kalbas said of that match, "and she beat Di Lorenzo in a dual match, because you know what? It's about the team. It's not about herself. She's going to give everything she can."
"In that moment, I realized I'm a completely different person when I'm playing for the team," Carter said. "There's just something different about playing for those girls. We go to work every single day, and I see what they put in, and there's no way I'm letting that ball go. There's no way I'm not going to give every single thing I have for every shot. It's definitely different. I care way more about them than I care about myself."
Hayley Carter is 53-1 playing at #1 in dual matches. Day after day, college tennis teams send their best at Hayley Carter, and she sits them down.
Carolina is 27-2 on the season, and clinched the top seed in the ACC Tournament due in no small part to Carter, who is as reliable a singles point as anyone in the country. When her teammates look up to the scoreboard and know that they can count on a point from Carter, they take confidence to their own courts.
"I want the match to come down to her," said sophomore Jessie Aney, who herself is 24-2 in singles this season and 12-1 in dual matches as Carter's doubles partner. Together, they captured the 2017 doubles title at the Freeman Memorial Championship in Las Vegas in January.
"I know you're supposed to want the match to come down to yourself," Aney said, "but for me, it doesn't matter what Hayley's score is, I know that she's going to put everything on the line for us, and she's going to motivate me and motivate herself and pull through for us."
Two weeks ago, the Tar Heels traveled to Rome, Georgia for the ACC Tournament, attempting to defend last year's conference crown in a top-heavy league. With Carter, Sara Daavettila, Aney, Alexa Graham, Makenna Jones and Chloe Ouellet-Pitzer at the top of the card, Carolina is extremely deep. "I believe in every single one of our players to beat any player on any team in the nation," Aney said.
Her teammates lived out Aney's words in the conference championship match against Georgia Tech, the only ACC team to beat the Tar Heels in a dual match this season. After Carolina dropped the doubles point, they needed singles wins on four of the six courts. When Daavetilla fell in straight sets, they then needed four of five. Ouellet-Pitzer came through in two sets, then Carter dispatched Rasheeda McAdoo, the daughter of Carolina basketball legend Bob McAdoo. But when Jones fell in three on court five, the match came down to Aney and Graham on three and four, respectively.
It happened in a matter of seconds. Aney earned a 6-4 win in the third just as Graham finished 6-2. The Tar Heels ran to Aney, then quickly rushed Graham. "I've never experienced something like that in my four years, especially in a key match," Carter said. "It was so cool. They're amazing, and it was such an incredible feeling to go out with a bang my last year at ACCs."
But there is still more tennis to play. This weekend, Carolina hosts Furman, Ole Miss and William & Mary for NCAA Regionals. In fact, both women's and men's Tar Heel tennis teams open NCAA Tournament play at home, two wins away from the Division I Championships in Athens, Georgia. College tennis is spectacularly underrated as a spectator sport, and Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center is home to some of the sport's most talented athletes.
What the Carolina community has in Hayley Carter is something rare. A priceless gem. Sometime this fall at a home football game –working around her professional tennis schedule–Carter will be recognized on the field in front of 60,000 people. Just like field hockey national finalists, or twin lacrosse national champions, or men's basketball national champions, Hayley Carter will earn a standing ovation in Kenan Stadium. Will it be for the ACC singles record, or for some championship she has yet to win? Perhaps she'll be joined by her teammates, too, celebrating one team title or another.
But before then, this weekend presents the precious opportunity to get to see Carolina's most decorated women's tennis player in history, the ACC's all-time winningest singles player, in a Tar Heel uniform on one more Chapel Hill weekend.
"Every time she plays," Kalbas said, "you just have to marvel and appreciate that you're seeing greatness out there."
The Tar Heel women take on Furman on noon Saturday and should they advance would play again at 3 p.m. on Sunday. The Carolina men face VCU Friday at 1 and have a potential second-round match Saturday at 3 in the final home weekend for a stellar senior class led by Ronnie Schneider and Jack Murray.
"It's been special," Carter said. "I can speak for Jack and Ronnie, too. We've loved every second of playing for this school and playing for Tar Heel fans. Hopefully they can show the love back this weekend. We've given everything we can possibly give to this university, academically, athletically, every single thing that I have, I've given. It would mean the world to me to have that support. It's going to be emotional, but I'm excited to wear the Carolina blue two more times."
Carolina, consider this your formal invitation. See Hayley play.