Sports

UNC’s Jamie Loeb, first NCAA singles champion in school history, on verge of fulfilling US Open dream

AP

Jamie Loeb grew up only about a 40-minute drive from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center outside New York City, and when she was younger she’d attend the U.S. Open and dream about a far-off day when she might compete in it.

That day isn’t so far away now for Loeb, who last week ended her sophomore season at North Carolina by winning a national championship. She became the first singles national champion in UNC’s long history and, in the process, earned entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open.

“I’m really excited,” Loeb said during a phone interview after returning home to New York from Waco, Texas, where she won the NCAA title. “I don’t know if you can really put it into words. But I’ve always dreamed of playing in the main draw of the U.S. Open.”

A national championship had been on her list, too. Loeb arrived at UNC in 2013 as the top-ranked prospect in her class, and she entered the 2014 NCAA singles tournament as the No. 1.

With that, though, came some burdens. Her freshman season ended in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament and ended, too, with some lessons about how to best handle the mental challenge that comes with high expectations.

Less pressure

Loeb entered the 2015 NCAA singles tournament as the No. 7 seed. She wasn’t necessarily the national favorite she was during her freshman year, but she might have been better equipped to win as a sophomore than as a freshman.

“I think this year I played freely and didn’t put as much pressure on myself,” Loeb said. “Obviously, I really wanted it last year, and this year, I kind of learned from how I handled things last year.”

Her national championship victory came in three sets over Carol Zhao, a sophomore at Stanford. Zhao defeated Loeb in the second set, 6-4, before Loeb dominated the final set to win the title. Midway through the competition, inclement weather forced the match to be moved into Baylor’s indoor facility.

The trophy ceremony – “a memorable one,” Loeb said with a laugh – was delayed, too, because of a tornado warning. The bad weather didn’t leave much time for celebrating onsite, though Loeb said she and her family would tend to that.

Not that there will be much down time coming up. After a “couple” off days, she said, Loeb will begin preparing for her first tournament of the summer, in the middle of June in South Carolina.

Lifelong dream

Then there’s that other tournament that starts in late August. Loeb, who started playing tennis when she was 3, has played on some of the courts at the National Tennis Center, has trained there and has even received some awards there, too. This, though, will be different – the realization of a lifelong dream of playing in the U.S. Open.

“It was even an honor playing in the qualifying tournament,” Loeb said.

The victory in the national championship allows her to bypass qualifying for the Open. Growing up, she said, she attended the U.S. Open every year with her family, which includes two older brothers and an older sister, Jenna, who played tennis at Wake Forest.

Loeb’s interest in the sport grew while she watched her sister play. Then at some point in her teenage years – she wouldn’t say when, exactly, out of a desire to protect the innocent – she began beating her oldest brother, who’s now 35.

By the time Loeb had a decision to make about where to attend college – she wanted to remain on the East Coast – she’d already long made a name for herself in tournaments and at the John McEnroe Academy, which served as her high school. Her schooling days might be over – at least for now.

She said turning professional is “definitely a possibility for me.”

“I think it’s going to depend on how I do this summer,” she said. “Getting into the U.S. Open does change things.”

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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