Freshman TJ Pura earned a three-set comeback victory that clinched the match for Duke as the Blue Devils topped Illinois.
Darbi Griffith / The Chronicle
Freshman TJ Pura earned a three-set comeback victory that clinched the match for Duke as the Blue Devils topped Illinois.
The first dual match victory of freshman TJ Pura's young collegiate career could not have come at a better time.

The freshman provided the game-clinching victory in a three-set comeback as the No. 15 Blue Devils captured a 5-2 win against No. 19 Illinois at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center Friday.

“I’m most proud of how we competed and fought,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We showed a lot of toughness and we just out-competed them in the end, and it was really exciting to see as a coach.”

After junior Jason Tahir and sophomore Michael Redlicki dropped a tight set on court one, Pura and sophomore Daniel McCall evened the score for Duke (4-2) with a swinging forehand volley down the line by Pura to finish out the set 6-5 (8-6). Junior Fred Saba and sophomore Bruno Semenzato stayed neck-and-neck with the 27th-ranked pair from Illinois. With the tiebreak score even at 5-5, Semenzato served to pull ahead 6-5 and a forehand passing shot down the line by Saba secured the doubles point for the Blue Devils.

“We started off with really good doubles,” Smith said. “All three courts came out with a lot of energy and played aggressive. They were three really close double sets. That gave us a lot of momentum.”

Despite Duke’s momentum going into singles, Illinois (2-1) managed to take the early lead in four of the six singles matches. Semenzato’s early 4-1 advantage at the fourth singles position was curtailed by Illinois’ Brian Page, who came back to win four straight game-deciding points to go up 5-4 in the first set. Semenzato managed to hold serve, sending the first set into a tiebreaker, which he won 11-9. He then rallied to claim the second set 6-3.

“I came into this match with a special desire to win,” Semenzato said. “The first set was key to staying in the match, and I knew I had to find a way to pull that one off.”

Pura, on the other hand, did not have the same trouble at the sixth singles spot, facing off against Illinois’ Ross Guignon. Pura struggled to get going in the first set, falling behind 3-1 early in the first set before dropping the first set 6-2.

Pura continued to stroke the ball with consistency in the second set, pasting the lines and the corners of his opponent’s court. Following a break of serve for a 3-2 lead in the second set, Pura then held serve and broke again at 4-2 to serve for the second set. Drawing Guignon into no man’s land allowed Pura to take an early forehand down the line for a winner and claim the second set, 6-2.

“It was kind of a tough first set,” Pura said. “Even though I lost it, I was feeling pretty confident going into the second set. Ramsey gave me a couple tips and he had total belief in me and I knew that I could pull it out. It was more just about digging deep and grinding it out.”

Pura attributes his third-set victory to his fitness and determination to battle through every point. Following both sophomore Josh Levine and junior Jason Tahir’s three-set comebacks, the Blue Devils took the lead 3-1 against Illinois. Pura had the chance to lock up his team's fifth straight win with a victory—he did not disappoint.

Pura’s shot variety kept Guignon moving in all directions on the court and Pura’s quickness and agility gave him a clear advantage when the fatigue set in for his opponent in the third set. Pura continued to execute as he had in set two and took a quick and early 4-1 lead. He gave up only one more game before recording a 6-2 third set score and clinching the win for the Blue Devils.

“Going into the second set, I was really just going to make him earn every point," Pura said. "I knew that I was fitter than him and I was willing to be out there forever. I turned every single point into a battle and made him feel like he had to earn it if he wanted to win.”

Smith said he’s confident that Pura’s energy and competitiveness will give the rest of the team something to feed off of as the team opens a series of away matches against No. 6 Tennessee Friday.

“[Pura] was something special out there,” Smith said. “He plays with a lot of passion and a lot of energy and for him to clinch a big-time win for us was pretty good first dual match form.”