No. 20 Tennessee edged out No. 11 Duke 4-2 Sunday at Ambler Tennis Stadium, eliminating the Blue Devils from the NCAA Team Championship on their home court. The Volunteers notched their second victory of the season against Duke, after defeating the Blue Devils 4-2 in Knoxville, Tenn., in early February.
Despite having played the Volunteers earlier in the season, familiarity was at a minimum Sunday. None of the matches in either singles or doubles were repeats of the matchups from that February match. Injury and suspension forced Duke head coach Ramsey Smith to juggle the Duke lineup several times throughout the season.
“We knew it was going to be a really tough match,” Smith said. “We played them earlier in [the] year and it was a battle and came down to a couple of points in the end. Tennessee is a really good team. Overall I thought we fought extremely well.”
Duke (20-7) dropped the doubles point for just the ninth time all season, a harbinger of things to come—five of the Blue Devils' seven losses this season came after falling behind 1-0 after doubles.
The tandem of Fred Saba and Jason Tahir, ranked 51st nationally, ran into trouble against the No. 2 doubles team in the country in Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese. The Volunteers' duo was able to squeeze by Saba and Tahir 8-5 to clinch the doubles point for Tennessee (19-10). The victories on courts one and two meant the doubles match on court three—where Duke's Bruno Semenzato and Cale Hammond were leading Brandon Fickey and Bartosz Sawicki 7-5—was abandoned.
The Volunteers extended their lead in singles play, but Duke would battle back to even the score. After Duke's Raphael Hemmeler fell 3-6, 3-6 to Jarryd Chaplin, No. 89 Semenzato recorded a 6-1, 7-5 victory against Fickey to put the Blue Devils on the scoreboard. The remaining four singles matches all went to three sets.
After taking the first set 6-4, sophomore Josh Levine couldn't put away Tennessee's Andrew Dromsky in the second, falling 2-6. In the decisive third set, Levine found his stroke again, taking the set 6-3 to notch a point for Duke at fifth singles and even the match at 2-2.
After digging its way out of the 2-0 hole, the Blue Devils could not continue to swing momentum in their favor. Freshman T.J. Pura—who earned the decisive victory in Duke's opening round match against Winthrop—fell 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 to Sawicki at sixth singles, putting the Blue Devils on the brink of elimination. No. 34 Libietis sealed Duke's fate moments later, defeating 44th-ranked Saba 2-6, 7-6, 6-3 to send the Volunteers on to Athens, Ga., next weekend.
“We really got a lot tougher as the season’s gone on, particularly these last two months,” Smith said. “We fought through a lot of really tough situations and we won a lot of really close matches. Unfortunately we didn’t get this one, but we gave ourselves a shot."
The season is not quite yet over for Saba and Tahir, who were both invited to compete in the NCAA Singles Championship, which will take place May 21-26 in Athens, Ga.