The team aspect of collegiate tennis was very apparent in the Blue Devils’ narrow loss to No. 1 Virginia (13-0, 3-0 in the ACC) Friday.
Despite a stellar performance from junior Fred Saba to defeat the top-ranked player in the nation, Alex Domjian, No. 8 Duke (15-3, 3-1) could not convert one of the final two singles matches and fell to the Cavaliers 4-3.
“We put ourselves in position to win— we were up 3-2,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “But it just didn’t work out for us.”
The day started off well for Duke, with the top-ranked doubles team of senior Henrique Cunha and sophomore Raphael Hemmeler defeating the second-ranked Virginia pair of Jarmere Jenkins and Mac Styslinger. In a sign of things to come, however, the higher-ranked Blue Devil teams could not take either of the next two matches and dropped the doubles point to the Cavaliers.
Duke did not get on the board until Hemmeler won his singles match 6-3, 6-2 to bring the score to 2-1. Cunha continued his unbeaten run this season and defeated fifth-ranked Jenkins 6-4, 6-0 to tie the score at 2-2.
“[Cunha]’s been incredible. He hasn’t lost a match in singles,” Smith said. “He’s had times when he hasn’t hit the ball great, but he finds a way to win. His win over Jenkins was huge, he’s had trouble with him in the past, but he dominated Jenkins [Friday]. He’s had an incredible senior season.”
Saba then gave the Blue Devils the lead for the first time with what he describes as “the biggest win” of his collegiate career. Smith said his victory against the nation’s top player was evidence of Saba’s improvement, especially in the mental aspect of the game.
“It was a great win, but it’s not just one match—it’s a long process for me to continue improving on the court,” Saba said. “It’s been a result of all the hard work I’ve been putting in on and off the court.”
At this point Duke needed only one of Chris Mengel or Jason Tahir to win their matches to hand Virginia its first loss of the season, but it was not to be.
Mengel fought back from a demoralizing 6-1 loss in the first set but could not push the match to a third set, falling narrowly in a second-set tiebreaker 7-6 (9-7). Tahir also fell victim to the tiebreaker, dropping the first set 7-6 (8-6) before a tight 6-4 loss in the second set.
“They’ve been the best for a bunch of years now. They’ve been dominant in the ACC,” Smith said. “This sends a message that we’re obviously right there. We’ve got a long way to go, but hopefully we’ll get another chance at them at the ACC Tournament.”
Sunday, the Blue Devils responded by demolishing Virginia Tech (10-5, 2-1) 7-0, losing only two sets in the process.
Duke swept the doubles matches, though by the slimmest of margins. Tahir teamed up with Daniel McCall and Cunha with Hemmeler to secure the doubles point for the Blue Devils with tiebreaker wins, following an 8-6 victory by the pair of Mengel and Saba.
Tahir and Michael Redlicki both bounced back from their losses against the Cavaliers to give Duke a commanding 3-0 lead. Hemmeler then recorded his team-leading 26th win of the season 6-2, 6-4 to clinch the contest which meant the team would not return to Durham empty-handed.
“We did a really good job bouncing back, from what was certainly a tough loss [against Virginia],” Smith said. “A lot of times it’s tough to bounce back after losing an opportunity like that.”
Smith said this performance during the weekend shows his team is playing as well as Virginia, which has won the previous six conference titles, and they will now also be considered the team to beat.
“We’ve just got to make sure we turn up for every single ACC match,” Smith said. “We’ve got a bull’s eye on our back, and teams will always give us their best shot.”