Duke left Chapel Hill last Sunday with a perfect start to ACC play and a 14-3 overall record. This weekend, the Blue Devils will take on the only conference opponent ranked higher than them in the ITA national rankings.
No. 8 Duke (14-3, 2-0 in the ACC) will travel to Virginia this weekend to take on the top-ranked Cavaliers and No. 52 Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers (11-0, 0-0) are dominating opponents this season, thanks in large part to a lineup with six ranked singles players and four ranked doubles tandems. At the quarterfinals of the ITA National Team Indoors Feb. 15, they defeated the Blue Devils 7-0. Meanwhile, the Hokies (9-3, 1-0) are trying to change what has been a rather lopsided matchup over the years. Duke has won 23 of the 25 meetings against Virginia Tech, including a 7-0 win a year ago. Both Virginia schools, however, face a tough challenge as they will have to take down a streaking Duke squad.
“This is definitely the hardest working team that I’ve ever had,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “They’re really focused on their goals, which mostly are coming at the end of the year. We’re off to a great start.”
Most teams would be happy with this kind of start, but junior Chris Mengel said he believes that Duke still has a lot to prove.
“Honestly, I would say we were disappointed with two of our three losses,very disappointed,” Mengel said. “Those are probably the two worst feelings I’ve had after a match in my time here. And I think it all goes back to our expectations.”
In addition to losing to Virginia, the Blue Devils dropped contests against then-No. 25 Illinois and then-No. 24 California, both by scores of 4-3. Still, it’s hard to ignore Duke’s numbers thus far this season. The team’s singles players No. 10 senior Henrique Cunha and sophomore Jason Tahir have yet to lose matches this season. The Blue Devils are the only school in the country with three doubles teams in the top 25. Perhaps the most impressive statistic: Duke has lost a mere two doubles points all season.
“We were terrible at doubles,” Mengel said. “It’s been a total transformation. We couldn’t buy a doubles point my freshman year. We relied on our singles. And this year, you know, its just something we’ve been practicing all the time. We just found the right pairings, and have just made it work so far.”
The inconsistent play in past years pushed doubles improvement to the top of Smith’s list.
“Our real focus going into this year was the doubles,” Smith said. “We feel that if we can win the doubles point then our singles line-up is extremely strong at every spot and we feel really comfortable winning at least three of the six singles matches.”
There is no question that Duke is off to a terrific start, but Mengel’s doubles partner and No. 27 singles player junior Fred Saba said it’s not about how you start, it’s all about how you finish.
“As long as we keep our heads down and just control what we can control, I’d say we’re a top three, top four team in the country,” said Saba, who is 2-0 in ACC play. “If we keep up what we’re doing right now, we’ll be one of the favorites to win the [NCAA] tournament.”