The Blue Devils received no Southern hospitality on their weekend road trip.
Top-ranked Duke—perfect at home on the season—suffered consecutive 4-3 road defeats this weekend to Clemson and Georgia Tech, ending its 13-match winning streak and giving the Blue Devils a major wakeup call as they enter postseason play this week.
“We’re at our best when we’re engaged for three sets emotionally, physically and mentally,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “And we weren’t that [Saturday]. I think we were knocked back a little bit from the loss Thursday.”
Thursday at the Hoke Sloan Tennis Center, it was a toss-up affair from the get-go, with No. 17 Clemson (20-5, 12-2 in the ACC) edging the Blue Devils in the opening doubles point. Junior Annie Mulholland and freshman Chalena Scholl, the 80th-ranked pair in the country, lost 8-4 to Clemson's Jessy Romples and Joana Eidukonyte at third doubles.
Although senior Hanna Mar and sophomore Beatrice Capra—the No. 5 duo—pulled Duke even with a tiebreaker win at first doubles, the Blue Devils couldn’t pull through in the decisive match. Despite holding an early lead, the 22nd-ranked pair of junior Ester Goldfeld and freshman Alyssa Smith fell 8-7 (7-3) to Tigers Tristen Dewar and Beatrice Gumuly.
“When you play good players and good teams, you may only get one chance to end the point or end the game, and you’ve got to take advantage of that,” Ashworth said. “And we just didn’t do a good job of that.”
Still, Duke (21-3, 11-3) seemed to momentarily right the ship at singles, taking five of six opening sets. Scholl, after claiming the first set against No. 31 Romy Koelzer, dropped the next two sets to fall 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1. But following straight-set wins from No. 24 Goldfeld, redshirt junior Rachel Kahan and No. 35 Mar, the Blue Devils were just one point away from victory, with Capra and senior Marianne Jodoin in position to clinch it.
No. 5 Capra battled back after losing a tough opening tiebreak to roll in the second set. However, she faltered in the third set, falling 6-2 to No. 47 Yana Koroleva. With the match tied at 3-3, all eyes turned to court six.
Jodoin had claimed the first set in a tiebreaker and led 5-3 in the second. But despite facing two match points, Clemson’s Eidukonyte roared back, claiming 10 straight games to win the match 6-7 (5-7), 7-5, 6-0.
“We definitely had a chance to win. We should’ve won the doubles and we let that slip,” Ashworth said. “It just happened to be Marianne on the last court. We just let [Clemson] hang around and hang around, and they started to believe they could win.”
Saturday at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex in Atlanta, the Blue Devils had an opportunity to salvage a road split against Georgia Tech (12-8, 9-5), albeit without the services of Goldfeld, who missed the match due to illness.
Ashworth mixed up the doubles squads, but the new pairings had little impact on the outcome. Mulholland and Mar, playing first doubles, fell 8-4 to Megan Kurey and Kendal Woodard, the fourth-ranked duo in the country. Kahan and Jodoin, teaming up at third doubles, dropped an 8-3 decision to Yellow Jackets Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer and Rasheeda McAdoo that handed Georgia Tech the doubles point.
“Ester was sick, and we were trying to rest Chalena a little bit,” Ashworth said of the new lineup configurations. “But the doubles today had nothing to do with our teams. We came out so flat, and we just can’t do that. We’ve got to be better than that.”
For the second straight match, Duke was down 1-0 entering singles play. And yet again, that opening point would prove to be the difference.
The Blue Devils did rebound somewhat, taking four of the six opening sets in singles. But instead of being on the verge of clinching the match, the Blue Devils found themselves losing 3-1 very quickly. Jodoin notched a point for Duke with a 6-1, 6-2 victory at sixth singles, but Scholl and No. 111 Smith fell in straight sets.
One point away from their second consecutive defeat, the Blue Devils attempted to climb the comeback trail. Mar rolled 6-0, 6-2 against Natasha Prokhnevsha at third singles, and Capra edged Woodard 6-2, 7-6 to put Duke back on level terms. Once again, it all came down to a single match, and once again, Duke came up short, this time without the drama of Thursday’s showdown. After Kahan claimed the first set, Muriel Wacker turned the fifth singles match around and stormed to a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win.
“We’ve got to get better in three-set matches. I think we went 0-4 in three-set matches [this weekend],” Ashworth said. “To me that’s a mental toughness thing and a conditioning thing. When the pressure was on us in the early-to-middle part of the year, we played really well. But this week when the pressure was on, I think we played with a little bit of fear.”
The losses to Clemson and Georgia Tech are especially crucial for seeding in the ACC tournament this week in Cary, N.C. Duke may have held the top seed had it won out this weekend, but instead will finish fifth in the conference and must play an additional round in the tournament.
On the bright side, the quick turnaround means that the Blue Devils may have a chance for revenge against one or both teams in the postseason. That is, if they can regain their mojo.
“We have to know that we can beat anybody in the country,” Ashworth said. “We have to get back and do those little things well, and figure out a way to simulate that pressure in practice.”