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Women's tennis remains leader in ACC

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Women's tennis remains leader in ACC**

As the Atlantic Coast Conference becomes more prominent on the national women's tennis scene, Duke hopes to continue its role as the undisputed league leader this spring.

The Blue Devils have dominated the ACC for the last six years, winning the conference tournament every season during that stretch. However, much of Duke's success in league play has come as a result of the weakness of the other conference teams.

This season, three other ACC teams, Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia, join Duke in the top-20 national rankings. Unlike previous seasons, the Blue Devils should be joined by these three squads in the NCAA tournament in May.

In order to remain atop the ACC the Blue Devils will need to build upon a strong fall season in which juniors Monica Mraz and Wendy Lyons won several singles and doubles tournaments and emerged as two of the pre-eminent tennis players in the NCAA. Mraz is currently ranked No. 34 in the country, and Lyons' ranking has ascended to No. 26. The two also comprise the nation's third-ranked doubles team.

Despite their lofty rankings, head coach Geoff Macdonald believes that Mraz and Lyons can become even better players as they go head-to-head with the top players from many other nationally-ranked teams.

"I honestly think they're both top-20 players," Macdonald said. "Maybe even top-10."

Last season, the Blue Devils featured four All-Americans. Mraz returns, but Julie Exum and Susan Sommerville graduated last spring, and senior Christine Neuman has been unable to play due to a mysterious wrist injury which has bothered her since the beginning of the fall season.

It is still uncertain whether Neuman will return this season. Consequently, the team has had to develop two sets of plans for how it will use its roster this season.

"I have my plan `A', which would include Chris [Neuman]," Macdonald said. "I would know that my top three players are the upperclassmen -- Monica Mraz, Wendy Lyons and Chris."

If Neuman returns, a trio of freshmen, Karen O'Sullivan, Kim Schiff and Wendy Fix, will join senior Hillary McKinney in competition for the fourth through sixth positions on the team.

"Without Chris, we'll go to plan `B', which is Monica and Wendy at the top," Macdonald said. "Those four [McKinney and the freshmen] will be mixing in. I'm not quite sure where they'll all fit. Chris is such an impact player that she's obviously huge to us."

With Neuman out of the lineup, Mraz and Lyons have been asked to step up and claim greater leadership roles on this young team. So far, in the team's first two matches -- a pair of victories over Minnesota and Auburn -- the two juniors have excelled in their new roles.

"I was really pleased that in our first two matches Monica Mraz and Wendy Lyons really led well," Macdonald said. "They're both doing a really good job of moving up."

Mraz was the No. 4 player on the team last season, while Lyons occupied the No. 6 slot. There is a tremendous difference between the level of competition which they faced there and what they will be facing this season. Although Mraz and Lyons will be playing against tougher opponents, they should continue to compile stellar won-lost records this season.

Both players also expect to have vastly improved games by season's end, thanks to the level of competition which they will encounter nearly every match this season.

"Honestly, they were both underchallenged last year," Macdonald said. "If more is asked of you, you can deliver more. Now that Monica's a [No. 1 player], she's getting to go to war every day."

The Blue Devils will be without the services of junior Kelli-Anne Johnston this season. Johnston, an All-American at Southern Methodist last season, transferred to Duke this fall. She is unable to compete this year because SMU refused to agree to her transfer of eligibility.

Without Neuman and Johnston, the Duke squad has little depth. The Blue Devils have only six other players -- three of whom are freshmen -- available to compete this year.

The team's lack of depth should assist the freshmen in their development as players on the collegiate level.

"They're all three very good athletes," Macdonald said. "In time, with some competition, they're all three going to be very good collegians. They are all good singles and doubles players, as opposed to being specialists in one or the other.

"These players get to develop and play like crazy and you don't have great players sitting on the bench. It is more of a problem to have a junior who has not played than an inexperienced freshman."

As a whole, the team is strong in both singles and doubles play.

"This is probably, in terms of singles and doubles, one of our most balanced teams," Macdonald said.

Greater continuity should help the Blue Devils in doubles this season. Last year, Duke used 11 different doubles combinations throughout the year. This season, however, Macdonald plans to use just four different doubles pairs, depending on Neuman's status.

Mraz and Lyons form the Blue Devils top doubles team. They are a solid team which is mentally tough and makes few mistakes.

Schiff and Fix posted a 9-3 record as a doubles pair during the fall season. They have shown great potential playing together thus far.

The remaining doubles pair of O'Sullivan and McKinney have not played much as a tandem and will need to gain some experience in the near future. Of course, the Blue Devils' doubles lineup will receive a tremendous boost if Neuman is able to return this season.

"If Chris comes back, she's a good enough doubles player that she can just come onto the court and take over," Macdonald said.

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