After bouncing back from its first loss, Duke returns home this weekend to welcome two top-25 opponents in three matches.
After taking on No. 14 Tennessee (10-0), Friday at 6 p.m., the No. 9 Blue Devils will play a doubleheader Sunday, starting with No. 21 Michigan (4-1) Sunday at 12 p.m. and capping off the weekend with a match against North Carolina Central (0-0) Sunday at 5 p.m.
Duke (6-1) suffered its first loss of the season last Friday at then-No. 25 Illinois, losing 4-3, but managed to rebound with a shutout win against Notre Dame two days later.
“We learned a lot from the Illinois loss,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We did several things poorly, and we corrected those things and played really well on Sunday, so I feel like we’re back on track, and we’re excited to play a couple matches at home this weekend.”
The Duke players echoed Smith’s sentiment in their evaluation of the early-season defeat.
“It was a real wake-up call for us,” junior Chris Mengel said. “These matches—they aren’t played on paper for a reason. You might be one of the most talented teams, but we’ve got to still come out and impose our will on these other teams too.”
With undefeated Tennessee coming to Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center, Duke faces perhaps its most talented foe yet.
Although Duke defeated the Volunteers in Knoxville 6-1 last season, this season’s squad has shut out nine of its 10 opponents, including Illinois two times. “The team’s got very good the chemistry [this year],” Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. “They really have put their nose to the grindstone and continued to work to get better.”
No. 9 Mikielis Libietis has played especially well, winning more matches this year than he did all last season. He currently holds a 7-0 record in dual matches. The Volunteer sophomore will face his biggest test of the year against No. 11 ranked Blue Devil Henrique Cunha, who is also undefeated in dual matches so far this season.
“[Cunha’s] a gentlemen out there on the court,” Winterbotham said. “He competes his tail off every time, and for us at that matchup, we have a good, young player who’s really gotten a lot better and certainly do some things that can cause trouble for most players. I think Henrique is the favorite in pretty much every match he’s going to go into this year, so we’ll do the best we can against him.”
The Wolverines’ top seeded singles player will also present a challenge for Cunha.
Evan King, an unranked senior, defeated the nation’s No. 2 singles player Matija Pecotic, winning by a resounding score of 6-0, 6-1 last weekend to improve to 8-0 in dual matches on the season.
“He’s always been one of the most talented guys out there,” Smith said. “The last four years he’s been one of the most talented guys. When he’s locked in and focused, he’s as good as anyone, but Cunha’s played well against him. Cunha plays well against just about everybody.”
Cunha defeated the Michigan player twice in 2012. In one of last year’s matchups, King jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first set but eventually lost.
“Cuhna’s proven that he’s been the more dominant player when those two have met so far,” Michigan head coach Bruce Berque said. “I’m sure that Evan’s going to go nationals… based on how he’s played so far, but he’s going to have to play at the top of his game to have a chance.”
Beyond King, the Wolverines boast a deeper roster than last season, said Berque, and feature the No. 48-ranked singles player Vlad Stefan.
They also may benefit from the early-season match setting.
“They’re a good indoor team,” Smith said. “They play a lot of indoors up there.” Smith still has confidence in his team to keep a perfect record on its home court. “Two solid teams, but I like our chances, and like I said, it’s tough to beat us at our place,” Smith said.