By Madeline Coleman
William Blumberg stood on the sidelines of the indoor courts, watching his teammate and close friend Blaine Boyden’s every move.
It was May 2017, and the University of North Carolina men’s tennis team was tied with the University of Georgia 3-3. Whoever won on Court Six would go on to fight for the NCAA Championship.
The Greenwich, Connecticut native locked eyes with his teammate for a split second and had a look on his face that showed his faith in Boyden’s ability. In a way, it calmed the then-sophomore for what was to come.
Boyden bounced the ball three times before throwing it in the air and hitting his serve. Blumberg moved his head side to side, never losing sight of the ball. As Boyden hit the ball wide, just out of reach of the Bulldog opposite the court, Carolina was headed to its first NCAA Championship. Blumberg, who was a first-year at the time, ran onto the court without hesitation, quickly followed by his teammates. He was the first to reach Boyden, who jumped and embraced his teammate in midair.
Two years later, a picture of that moment is now hanging in Boyden and Blumberg’s apartment.
Blumberg almost missed out on that game and the chance to play for UNC-CH. He was ranked as high as No. 4 in the juniors’ world at one point, playing international tennis matches as a teenager. He’s hit with Mike and Bob Bryan, the most successful doubles tennis players in America, over the years and even Roger Federer this past summer.
So why is Blumberg here, competing on Court One for singles and doubles, instead of going pro? Because he doesn’t want others to think of him as just an elite athlete.
There’s more to him than that label.
The Legacy of Little Compton
The Blumberg brothers couldn’t help but smile as they rolled the windows down.
William leaned his head out the window of the car as his family got to the exit for Fish Road in Rhode Island. The salty ocean smell hit his nose and the sun shone down on the car. At the end of the road at the bottom of the hill, there’s a sign that reads “Little Compton.”
The Blumberg brothers’ smiles grew even bigger. They were finally at their vacation home.
“It’s something, and a place that you’ll never understand until you go there,” William said.
This small town holds a piece of William’s heart. Some of his oldest friendships were formed on Little Compton’s tennis courts and golf courses. This is where he fell in love with tennis and became a scratch golfer.
He, his brothers Alex and Andrew and his friends would play on the beach all morning, eating a marshmallow fluff sandwich or two. But once the clock neared 3:30 p.m., they dropped everything. With sand in their shoes, the kids would run to the country club in order to make it in time for AT’s, a tennis clinic for all ages where they would play games. The group would then play golf at dusk, get up the next morning — and repeat.
Sometimes, William and Little Compton are almost seen as one and the same to his friends.
“When I think about Little Compton, I think about Will immediately,” said Michael Marzonie, William’s best friend since kindergarten. “I affiliate him with that spot because it’s so down to earth and so genuine. There’s nothing flashy about it.”
Here, William isn’t the big-name tennis player. He can relax his shoulders and be William, or “Bops,” as his family calls him.
“William Blumberg is the tennis player and who people know,” said Andrew Blumberg, William’s oldest brother. “The Bops is who William is when you really know him.”
Reigniting his love for tennis
Blumberg sat on the bleachers and watched his brothers play tennis.
He longed to join them, to play with them. He wanted to be like them. Sports was his gateway in, his way to be seen as an equal and to hang out with them. He became a fiery competitor, making it hard to get him off of the court.
“He was always hassling me to stay after work for another 20 minutes to play another bunch of baseline games with him,” said Pat McNally, a tennis pro from Little Compton. “It’s funny how the tides have turned because now I’m begging him to stay and play with me… I used to kick his butt and now he’s kicking mine all over the place.”
Blumberg found success early on and started traveling in the junior circuit regularly, resulting in him missing more days of school. When he was in eighth grade, his school gave Blumberg an ultimatum — tennis or school. He chose to do online schooling and continue traveling for tennis.
He quickly found international success. At 17 years old, Blumberg made the quarter finals of singles and doubles at Junior Wimbledon and made the finals of Junior French Open Doubles with Tommy Paul, now a tennis pro. He even won the Junior Davis Cup for the U.S.
All signs pointed toward him staying pro. Blumberg was one of the lead junior USTA players in the nation, and had hit with pros like Ryan Harrison, Thomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic.
But his body suddenly held him back.
Blumberg would come home feeling awful. His parents would send him to the doctor for more antibiotics. Even when he competed in the Junior Wimbledon and French Open, he was miserable.
The doctors eventually discovered that Blumberg had infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as mono, but the diagnosis came too late. Blumberg was tired of people berating him in practice while his body struggled. He was burned-out.
“I was depressed and I hated the sport,” Blumberg said.
Blumberg took a step back from the lonely road and went home to Greenwich High School for his senior year.
It was his dad who convinced him to go out and hit a few times a day. As each day passed, Blumberg found his love for the sport again.
“It wasn’t who I am, but without that time period, I wouldn’t be the man I am today,” Blumberg said.
Blumberg and his oldest brother Andrew have always shared a love for sayings. As his little brother struggled through hard times, this Robert Schiuller quote captured how William would persevere, according to Andrew.
“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
Blumberg’s next step was as unexpected as his setback. He decided to ignore what people were telling him to do and go to college rather than the pro circuit. It turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
During his time at UNC-CH, Blumberg has broken records. He was the first player in program history to reach the NCAA singles championship match. He was named ITA National Rookie of the Year, ACC Freshman of the Year, 2018 ACC Player of the Year, and ranked as high as No. 1 in both singles and doubles during his 2018 spring season.
“With all of the success he’s had as a player, he’s certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player to ever play at Carolina,” said UNC-CH head coach Sam Paul.
A never-ending network of support
There they are, gathered in the masses surrounding Court One.
UNC men’s basketball senior Luke Maye and manager Eric Hoots sit along the sidelines yelling as loudly as they can. The men’s golf team sits behind one end of the court, showing just as much support. Countless athletes and college students from all walks of life surround Blumberg’s court to support him on any given match.
However, some still believe it pales in comparison to what Blumberg gave up.
“There are people congratulating him or angry with him,” said Asher Dawson, Blumberg’s best friend from Little Compton. “They DM him on Instagram saying, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t win your match. I lost this X amount of money,’ and he has to filter out that noise.”
But his friends and family are the only voices that matter. They would do anything to support him, and the feeling is mutual. As his girlfriend Mary Bryan Pope describes, Blumberg cares deeply, whether it’s about family and friends or tennis.
When teammate Boyden’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 2017, he felt his world stop. Boyden was in his room on Super Bowl Sunday when he got the call from his dad. Blumberg could sense something was wrong and decided to check on Boyden. Since then, Blumberg has been by Boyden’s side.
“If you’re in his corner, he’s going to care for you with all he’s got,” Boyden said.
Out of concern for Boyden’s wellbeing, Blumberg had Boyden’s favorite YouTuber Nick Colletti create a personalized video for Boyden.
“I will always go the extra mile for my friends and my family,” Blumberg said. “I would take a bullet for anyone that I’m close with.”
Moments like this showcase how meaningful friendships are to Blumberg, a love so strong that he wanted to get a tattoo of some kind that reminded him of his friends and family. It started as an impulsive idea, but his parents told him to wait a year before getting the permanent ink.
It’s small enough that no one would notice unless they were looking for it. The tattoo is hidden when his sleeve is down, which is something Blumberg loves. Etched in his mom’s handwriting on his right bicep is the word “we,” the letters formed together so the tattoo is connected.
“Whatever happens and you’re there for one another, that’s my ‘we,’” Blumberg said. “It’s just a subtle reminder that you’re not alone and you’ve got people around you, and you’ve got the people who love and care about you.”
Every so often, the junior will grab his arm, rubbing where the tattoo is. It reminds him of his family, who is the center of his “we,” and his friends.
He’s never alone.
Edited by Charlotte Spence.