Coming off its National ITA Indoor championship last Monday, Duke has returned to the No. 1 spot in the ITA ranking for the first time since 2010. But despite the thrill of beating four top teams in consecutive days, the hard work is just beginning for the Blue Devils.
"We definitely still have a lot to prove coming off the year we had last year in-conference," head coach Jamie Ashworth said. "We didn't get by the first day of the conference tournament [last year]. So I don't think there's any part of our team that's satisfied with what we've done."
The Blue Devils head to Virginia Friday to take on the No. 13-ranked Cavaliers (5-2), before returning home Sunday to face Syracuse (0-5).
Besides the start of conference play, the weekend will bring some new tests for the undefeated Duke (7-0) squad. Although the Blue Devils have travelled to tournaments earlier in the year, Friday marks the team's first true away match, which could work on the mental games of the girls.
“Playing at Virginia is always tough,” Ashworth said. “They’ll have their marching band at the match. It’s just a different atmosphere. You have to stay focused and have fun with it.... But definitely playing there is one of the tougher places to play, especially indoors.”
Additionally, Friday's match will bring the return of the traditional dual-match format. Previously this year, as part of an experimental ITA initiative, doubles matches had been one six-game set, and singles matches were two sets followed by a deciding match tiebreaker, if necessary. But starting Friday, doubles matches will once again be eight-game pro sets, and singles matches will be best of three sets.
The longer format could prove beneficial for the Blue Devils—who haven't played a match since last Monday and face a dangerous opponent in the Cavaliers. Virginia features four nationally ranked singles players, included the No. 4 player in the nation, Julia Elbaba, as well as the No.3 doubles duo in Elbaba and Rachel Pierson.
"We hope we get off to really great starts, but [the longer format] helps you work your way into the match a bit more," Ashworth said. "The 10 days we've had off [since ITA's] is definitely a lot for us...but we needed the time to recover to rebuild back up for this week."
Duke has certainly rebounded from its injury-riddled 2013 campaign well this year, and the players' effort is reflected in the rankings. Both junior Ester Goldfeld and senior Hanna Mar jumped up in the singles rankings this week to No. 20 and No. 42, respectively, and No. 96 Alyssa Smith and No. 115 Marianne Jodoin were featured in the top-125 for the first time this year.
One player who doesn't appear in the rankings is freshman Chalena Scholl, whose playing time early this season has been limited as she deals with some minor injuries. Getting her some match play this weekend—in ACC play—is certainly a point of emphasis.
"She's been resting some injury stuff, and we've been using her when we need to," Ashworth said. "She's a great player...and for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish, she's going to play a big role in that. So our plans are definitely to have her playing this weekend."
On the doubles side, Mar and sophomore Beatrice Capra have staked their claim to being one of the top duos in the nation, earning the No. 6 ranking. The Blue Devils also boast two other ranked duos: junior Annie Mulholland and Goldfeld are ranked 16th, and Goldfeld and Jodoin form the 39th-ranked pair.
Still, Ashworth acknowledges that the doubles pairings are not yet set in stone.
"Honestly, we're trying to have instead of one great team, we're trying to have three good teams," Ashworth said. "But we'll be able to come up with three good [ones]. We have talented enough players."
Now entering ACC play, the part of the season that Ashworth deems a "14-match sprint," and having rested up following an early-season triumph, Duke is chomping at the bit to get back to business this weekend.
"We just want to play," Ashworth said. "They just want to get out and prove themselves."
Duke women's tennis ends layoff with ACC opener
Dayou Zhuo / The Chronicle