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Women's tennis aiming for sixth straight ACC tourney title

Quick.

In no more than four words, what is the most crucial factor that will determine the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tennis championships this weekend in Charlotte?

That's easy. Duke will be there.

And while Duke head coach Geoff Macdonald may not subscribe to the philosophy that the top-seeded Blue Devils need but to show up at the Renaissance Tennis Center to claim their sixth consecutive league title, few could argue that Duke is not the overwhelming favorite to not only win the championship, but to run away with it.

The Blue Devils (18-2 overall, 7-0 in the ACC) enter this weekend's competition ranked fourth in the country and boast an astonishing 42-match winning streak in league play. Out of 63 singles and doubles matches Duke played in ACC competition this season, opponents won just eight of them.

Combine the psychological battle that the other eight league teams will face this weekend in just trying to convince themselves they can beat Duke with the on-the-court talent of the Blue Devils -- four of the top six singles players are ranked in the national top 25 -- and it seems more and more like, from Duke's point of view, that the tournament is more of a practice for the NCAA championships in May.

"[Overlooking teams] has been the one thing that's worried me all year," Macdonald said. "Since a kind of disappointing match against Tennessee [on Feb. 11] which we won 6-2 that was a lackluster effort, we have not overlooked anybody.

"[The players] just want to play. In Tuesday's practice, I was just watching the level of play, and I know we're not going to overlook anybody."

The first team that the Blue Devils must not overlook has yet to be determined. Friday evening in the quarterfinals Duke will play the winner of the play-in match between eighth-seeded N.C. State and No. 9 Maryland, both teams Duke vanquished by scores of 9-0 this season.

If Duke wins, either Wake Forest or Virginia will be waiting in a semifinal Saturday. A Blue Devil win there will most likely pit Duke against 13th-ranked Clemson in the championship match.

Duke had its closest call of the year in the conference Feb. 14 at Clemson where the Blue Devils escaped with a 6-3 win. Susan Sommerville, Monica Mraz and Tracey Hiete all lost tough three-setters in the singles competition, setting up a dramatic doubles portion of the match.

The Blue Devils swept the Tigers easily in doubles to clinch the win in front of a very hostile crowd, but Macdonald remains cautiously optimistic should Duke meet the Lady Tigers for the ACC crown.

"It's by no means a lock [to beat Clemson]," Macdonald said. "We had a really tough match with them. Clemson really reloaded this year in terms of recruiting with a Bulgarian, an Australian and a Canadian, all national level players in their countries.

"I was pleased that [in the Clemson match] the wheels almost came off, but we didn't drive off the road. The poise was remarkable. It was a nice statement to make. You're close to us, but not really."

The strength at doubles that the Blue Devils demonstrated in defeating Clemson could be a key element of this weekend's tournaments. Macdonald used eight different combinations of doubles in ACC play this season, and Duke did not lose a single doubles match, going 21-0.

The tandem of senior-freshman combination of Julie Exum and Lisa Pugliese, ranked 18th nationally, and the senior-senior duo of Exum and Sommerville (No. 18) have led the way this year, but teams such as Pugliese-Sommerville and Hiete-Christine Neuman are likely to take the courts this weekend. It simply hasn't mattered for the Blue Devils.

"I'm really pleased with the team in terms of rolling with the different situations [and line-up changes]," Macdonald said. "A lot of teams would freak out and say, I've never played with her, how can I play with her,' but we just say,If this is what we need to do, we'll do it.'"

Macdonald said that doubles play, often so crucial after exhausting and tightly-contested singles matches, has become more important to Duke since last season's NCAA tournament. In a quarterfinal match against Georgia, the Blue Devils had to win two of three doubles matches to advance to the national semifinals.

"We work on doubles," Macdonald said. "Last year this team was used to winning in singles. [The Georgia match] told us we have to be good in doubles to win. A lot of teams can come at you in singles and spend it all. We have to say, `Now you have to beat us in doubles, too.'"

Because Duke has been the dominant team in the ACC for the last six years, the Blue Devils are very accustomed to taking the other teams' best shots on a regular basis. What better way to make the season than to beat the conference bully?

To combat this hostile environment, Macdonald has had to instill an equally tenacious mindset in the Blue Devils, an attitude that must be utilized this weekend when all the other teams will have their eyes on Duke with a title at stake.

"It's like catching a fish," Macdonald said of trying to stay on top of the conference. "You let it make its run, you bring it in and tire it, you let it make another run. You be the team that just keeps pulling back.

"If you break a match into small enough units, it helps understand what you have to do to always win."

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