Home might be more comfortable, but the road is where good teams become great.
After playing their first six matches of the season at home, the No. 13 Blue Devils will hit the road for the first time this season with difficult tests on the horizon. Duke will head to Knoxville, Tenn., to take on No. 14 Tennessee Friday before heading north to face Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. This weekend's road swing will open a set of six straight road dual matches for the Blue Devils, not including the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in Houston Feb. 14.
“I think… we’ve built some momentum [at home] and we’re feeling really good,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. "It's our first road trip of the year so that’ll be exciting, something a little different but obviously Tennessee is a great team…. They had a tough loss last weekend so I know they’re going to be extremely motivated.”
Tennessee had spent most of the indoor season ranked No. 6 in the country before dropping a close match in Stillwater, Okla., to Oklahoma State. The Volunteers responded by shutting out Tulsa just a few days later.
The Blue Devils (4-2) are hoping use early-season losses to Elon and Kentucky as motivation as well as build off the momentum they received at the end of their home stretch. Duke defeated then-No. 19 Illinois Friday to extend its current winning streak to four matches.
“That first weekend… is about as low as things have been, I think, since I’ve been a head coach,” Smith said. “We came out with some real fire [last week], we changed some things and came out with a different mindset and the results have shown.”
Since those first two losses, the Blue Devils have dropped only three doubles matches—losing the doubles point just once—and only four singles matches. Two of those singles matches were three-set battles against ranked opponents.
The Blue Devils will have another tough doubles test on hand Friday when sophomore Michael Redlicki and junior Jason Tahir take on the nation's top-ranked team of Hunter Reese and Mikelis Libietis. Redlicki and Tahir are 1-1 on the season and are looking for some redemption after losing a close tiebreaker to the No. 4 pairing from Illinois last Friday.
Following the conclusion of their doubles match, No. 16 Reese and No. 29 Redlicki will square off at the top singles spot. After facing the finesse play of No. 4 Jared Hiltzik last Friday, the power-hitting Redlicki will go up against an opponent with a powerful forehand.
Despite this difficult test against Tennessee, Duke is giving equal preparation time this week for their match against Michigan Sunday.
“We just have to be ready for every single match,” Smith said. “We’ve shown that if we’re not 100 percent ready and we don't come out playing our best we can lose to a team like Elon, and if we are ready we can be pretty dominant against some really good teams.”
The Wolverines (3-2) are led by top singles player Vlad Stefan, another player with a powerful forehand that will likely face Redlicki. Blue Devil junior Fred Saba will match up at the second singles position against Michigan’s hottest singles player at the moment, junior Alex Petrone.
Though it is always tough to play on the road, Duke's players are looking forward to proving themselves against top competition in hostile environments.
“[We are] really excited,” Smith said. “We’re getting healthier and these top teams are all just great opportunities…. If you win them it's a big deal so I just want to make sure we go out playing on our terms and going after it, and if we do that I’m convinced good things will happen.”