The matches were close, but the final score wasn’t.
On a windy Friday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium, No. 13 Duke downed No. 20 Clemson for its fifth straight conference win. Although the day ended with a 7-0 shutout score, the ACC foes battled on every court, leaving the match to be decided by any one of four three-set matches between evenly-matched opponents.
“I’m really happy with that win and impressed that we were able to do it 7-0—maybe a little surprised,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “It was certainly a lot closer than the score. We came through in four three-set matches in singles and I thought we competed unbelievably well.”
The Blue Devils (15-5, 7-1 in the ACC) claimed five of six first sets in what was shaping up to be an easy win after tight doubles competition. But just two of those matches were decided in the next set. On opposite ends of the lineup, Jason Tahir and T.J. Pura bested their Tiger opponents and watched as Clemson (18-6, 5-4) staged one comeback after another to send the remaining matches into pivotal third sets.
Junior Raphael Hemmeler was the only Duke player to lose his first set. Clemson’s Alex Agosto found two breaks and held his serve to go up 4-0. Hemmeler fought back to win five of the next six games, but Agosto edged out the first set 7-5.
“I knew he was a good player,” Hemmeler said. “Really solid from the baseline. I came back in the first set and then lost—a little bit unlucky in the last two games—so it was a rough start.”
After struggling with his serve earlier in the day during doubles competition, Hemmeler took the lead in the second set behind multiple strong service games. Hemmeler continued his momentum after winning the second frame 6-3, breaking Agosto’s serve for a 3-1 lead in the third. Up 6-5 after fending off an Agosto comeback, Hemmeler relied on his strong serves once again to decide his match 7-5 and claim the day’s match for Duke.
“I just try to keep moving—bouncing. Show him you are in good shape, that you can play two more hours…. Just show him that you are present on the court and you’ll do everything to win the last set.” Hemmeler said. “I just tried to fight through that match, and it worked out, so I’m really happy.”
Although Hemmeler’s singles win clinched the match for Duke, his doubles competition gave Clemson the first advantage. On court one, the powerful Tiger duo of Hunter Harrington and Dominique Maden defeated Hemmeler and his partner, Fred Saba, 8-4 to put added pressure on the other two doubles contests.
On court two, Tahir and sophomore Josh Levine fought back from a 3-1 deficit, tying the score at 3-3 by winning a game that went to deuce five times. The pair won the next three consecutive games, finishing with a score of 8-4 and leaving the doubles point decision to the third court.
“We were in a bit of a hole. We lost it at [court] one, those guys haven’t lost much at all, so it came down to two and three. We were down a break at [court] two and came back and really got things going,” Smith said. “Jason and Josh really got fired up and got on a roll, and I think that helped our [court] three team.”
With a surprise start almost two weeks earlier than expected, Cale Hammond took the court for his first match since having his left index finger partially amputated following a freak accident at a match in San Diego. Playing with sophomore Bruno Semenzato in the closest doubles competition of the afternoon. The contest stayed on serve through 11 games to 6-5 in Duke’s favor.
In the following game, the Tigers fired a deep lob to the left corner. Hammond—in a similar situation to when he lost the finger nearly a full month prior—raced backward toward the fence and managed a leaping backhand return. Clemson’s answering overhead went wide, giving Duke the 40-15 advantage. Duke won the next game to send the squad into singles play with a 1-0 match lead.
“It was Cale’s first match in a while—first match since hurting his finger,” Smith said. “First matches are usually pretty tough, and he’s missing part of his finger so it probably made it a little tougher.”