Duke returns nine of its 10 players from last season, but when the Blue Devils take the court this weekend to open their season, the post-Henrique Cunha era will officially begin.
Coming off two consecutive NCAA quarterfinal appearances, the Blue Devils are set to kick off the fall portion of their schedule at the Duke Fab Four Invitational in Cary, N.C.
The tournament, hosted by Duke, brings 10 teams from around the nation together and gives Duke a chance to see some of the top players it might compete against later in the season. These players represent their schools, but all results are individual. The tournament format is a compass draw, allowing all players to compete in four singles matches and three doubles matches.
“It’s our first weekend of competition so we’re just looking to get a lot of matches under our belt and kick off the season,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “This tournament gives our guys a chance to compete, build their ranking and figure out the pecking order of how things are going to be in the spring."
The Fab Four Invitational will mark Duke's first tournament since the graduation of Cunha, the program's all-time leader in singles and doubles victories. Cunha was the nation's fifth-ranked singles player last season and made up one half of the country's No. 1 doubles team along with current junior Raphael Hemmeler.
"It’s definitely hard losing Cunha, given that he’s the most successful player in the history of the program, but it’s all about everybody as a collective unit stepping up as much as they can," sophomore Michael Redlicki said. "Just that will make us a really strong team.”
Redlicki, the teams highest ranked player at No. 22 in the country, and senior Fred Saba, ranked No. 26, are just two of the players that might need to step up to help replace some of Cunha’s production.
In addition to the loss of Cunha, the Blue Devils were dealt a huge injury blow, losing senior Chris Mengel for the year with a torn labrum. Despite being without these two players, Smith hopes that the loss of these players can still have a net positive impact on the team.
“Obviously we had a special situation with [Cunha]," Smith said. "He played No. 1 in every singles match for the last four years. Now the No. 1 spot is open, so I think it gives the guys an extra incentive and most of the team has a shot at it.... It’s really exciting because it’s so wide open”
The Fab Four Invitational also gives the Blue Devils a chance to try out its new doubles partnerships. Unlike last season, where the doubles teams were set for the preseason, this year, Smith looks to mix up the teams during the first two tournaments.
With few spots on the team set in stone, this tournament is especially important in determining how the team might look come the spring season.
“Figuring out the doubles is going to be a big part of it and that’s why we’re mixing it up a little bit. In getting guys to work as hard as they can, hopefully things will fall into place," Smith said. "The fall is a time for really working on your game and making improvements in singles and doubles, and it will all start this weekend.”
Although the beginning of the Blue Devils' dual schedule is still months away, this weekend's action will provide Duke with an early taste of competition as the team hopes to reach the NCAA semifinals for the first time in program history.
“I’m excited to get back into the atmosphere of college tennis,” Redlicki said. “Given that it’s individual play, it’s still a great feeling that you’re playing for Duke."