Duke men's tennis struggles against elite Virginia squad
Playing in a nationally-broadcasted match on ESPN3 as a part of the U.S. Tennis Association’s College MatchDay, Duke could not pull off a victory in one of the biggest matches of the season.
Despite playing hard, the No. 13 Blue Devils simply didn’t have enough to get past No. 7 Virginia, falling to the Cavaliers 5-1. The loss is Duke’s first in conference play and 13th straight to Virginia—a losing streak that goes back to 2006.
“It was a hard-fought match,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We definitely had some chances, but I thought Virginia played really well, especially in a couple of spots where they won pretty quickly at [positions] one and three. I felt like we just got overpowered in those matches, but other than that I felt that we were really in all the other matches.”
As if playing against a perennial ACC powerhouse wasn’t hard enough, the Blue Devils also had to shuffle their roster around, as their top-ranked player, No. 30 Michael Redlicki, was suspended indefinitely for disorderly conduct. Smith did not comment on the suspension.
Duke (10-5, 2-1 in the ACC) did not get off to a strong start, as No. 33 Alex Domijan got Virginia (12-2, 4-0) on the board first, taking care of No. 58 Fred Saba 6-3, 6-3. Saba fought hard throughout the match, but simply had no answer for the 6-foot-7 Domijan’s massive serve and overpowering forehand.
The Blue Devils dropped the next two singles points, as No. 92 Bruno Semenzato and Daniel McCall lost their respective matches.
With the Cavaliers just one point away from clinching the victory, the match seemed all but over. But Duke fought back, and for a brief moment there was glimmer of hope that the Blue Devils could pull off a comeback.
Josh Levine won his match against Justin Shane 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 to put the Blue Devils on the board. With Raphael Hemmeler up a break in his third set and No. 40 Jason Tahir tied at 5-5 in his second set, it seemed like the momentum was swinging in the team’s favor.
Duke's comeback bid would ultimately fall short, as Tahir missed a volley wide right to go down 6-5 in his third set tiebreaker and lost a well-fought match against sixth-ranked Mitchell Frank 6-3, 7-6. Hemmeler came up short as well, losing 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.
Despite the loss, there were still some bright spots for the Blue Devils—specifically the strong play of Tahir. The junior played a gritty match against Frank as the two players fought off groundstroke after groundstroke in several long rallies.
“I knew physically I was going to have to be out there for a really long time,” Tahir said. “[Frank] is very physically tough and fit and the points were really long, but I thought I competed well.”
It was not an everyday match for the Blue Devils. As part of USTA’s College MatchDay—a program instituted to bring more attention to college tennis—the contest featured an unusual format, with all six singles matches played first instead of three doubles matches.
For a Duke team that has played extremely well in doubles this season, winning the doubles point in three of their last four matches, it seemed like not playing the doubles point first would put the team at a disadvantage. However, Smith did not think it had any effect on the match.
“I don’t think so,” Smith said. “I think that, considering the College Matchday and the televised event, I was fine with the format and I don’t think it favored anybody.”
The match was also unique in that the players had to play under the bright lights of the television cameras.
“I started a little nervous,” Tahir said. “Playing UVA is nerve-wracking and then [the nerves] were added with ESPN3 here, but I think it’s great for college tennis. It was fun.”
Despite a loss that looks lopsided on paper, the Blue Devils can still come away feeling good about how they competed as they move forward with the rest of their conference schedule.
“I thought the guys who were out there fought well and played hard,” Smith said. “We’re definitely going to take a lot of positives, but congratulations to Virginia. They definitely outplayed [us] in a couple of spots, but we competed really hard and overall played pretty well.”