The temperatures across the Northeast may have been chilly, but the atmosphere inside the Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center was heated as Duke battled rivals North Carolina in the championship of the ITA Indoor Kick-Off Weekend.
Following their 4-1 victory against Oregon Saturday, the No. 17 Blue Devils rallied to take down the Tar Heels 4-2 in front of a energetic crowd. With the victory, Duke clinched a spot in the ITA National Team Indoors in Houston in February.
The win could prove that Duke has turned the corner after a rough start to the season, losing to Kentucky and Elon for the first time in program history.
“It feels really really good,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “There’s no secret it’s been a tough start to the season. We faced some pretty big adversity early and to rebound with a win like this against a team like UNC that I think is a top-10 team in the country and severely under-ranked right now…. I couldn’t be prouder of the guys.”
It didn’t look good for the Blue Devils early on, as North Carolina’s Robbie Schneider and Jack Murray took down Cale Hammond and Fred Saba of Duke 6-3. The Tar Heels followed that up with another victory when Oystein Steiro and Nelson Vick took down Raphael Hemmeler and Bruno Semenzato 6-3 to seize the doubles point for North Carolina.
Duke was quick to respond during singles play, winning five out of six first sets to give them an early advantage.
“It was a rough doubles point,” Hemmeler said. “I think it was key that we came out with high energy from the beginning. We won five first sets and that was huge and gave us confidence.”
Duke tied the match back up at one apiece after Hemmeler won his match against Murray 6-0, 6-4. North Carolina regained its lead as Duke’s Josh LeVine lost to Vick 6-1, 6-3, but wins by Jason Tahir and Semenzato gave the Blue Devils the lead at 3-2.
Saba ended up being the difference maker for Duke though, as he took down Schneider—the No. 17-ranked singles player in the nation—to seal the victory.
Saba was an unlikely hero for the Blue Devils, coming off to a rough start earlier in the tournament, as he was outplayed by Oregon’s Robin Cambier in a 6-5 (7-0), 6-2 loss. Saba seemed to be able to put the loss behind him and came out a completely different player against the Tarheels.
“Talk about a complete 180 from yesterday," Smith said. "Yesterday he had a tough loss. He didn’t play the way I wanted him to play. He kind of played a little defensive and careful and I got on him after the match and was pretty hard on him.”
Saba seemed to have a completely different mindset going into this match as the underdog.
“I decided to make a commitment to play my style of play on the bigger points and decided to challenge myself and make sure I played the best point as possible,” Saba said.
A key turning point in Saba’s match came after he broke Schneider in the first set to go up 3-2. During a two-minute break, Smith gave him a pep talk and after that Saba took complete control of the set.
“I just kind of reemphasized the game plan—being aggressive and on playing on his terms,” Smith said.
Saba played just as well in the second set to close out the match with a 6-4, 6-4 win, and the Blue Devils didn’t even need No. 1 seed Michael Redlicki to finish his match against Tar Heel freshman Brayden Schnur.
The victory not only places Duke in the ITA National Team Indoors, where it will face the top 16 teams in the country, but gives the team a renewed sense of confidence. Taking down a tough rival in the Tar Heels will give the Blue Devils some much-needed momentum moving forward.
“It’s a totally different team than the one from the last few weeks,” Smith said. “It’s hard for me to believe it’s the same group of guys. I knew we had the ability and I feel like we just put it together.”