No. 19 Duke goes into Friday’s match against No. 15 Illinois with seven years of defeat riding on its back and high hopes of finally making the Fighting Illini go home disappointed.
Coming off a surprising 4-2 loss against then-No. 25 Alabama in the second round of the ITA Kickoff Weekend, the Blue Devils prepared all week to avenge their defeat and turn the first home match of the year into a victory. Illinois is ranked similarly to Duke (2-1) going into the match, and assistant coach Josh Goffi stressed the importance of being focused for the contest.
“If you get in a rut where you keep losing, the opponents tend to have a one-up on you,” Goffi said. “We’ve prepared our guys mentally for that and we’re going to try and come out of the gates hot and come with a lot of energy.”
Head coach Ramsey Smith, a former Duke player who currently ranks second all-time with 119 single victories, fondly remembers the last time Duke beat the Illini the year after he graduated in 2002. Although Illinois has fielded one of the top programs in the country for the past eight years, highlighted by a No. 10 ranking to end the 2007 season, Smith is still confident that the Blue Devils have what it takes to be successful this weekend.
“We’ve been stressing that it’s a new week and a fresh start,” Smith said. “We did a lot of things really well last week and there are just a couple fine tuning things. It’s been a good week and the guys seem eager.”
Smith looks to top singles and doubles player Henrique Cuhna to lead the team to victory against the Illini despite his loss in singles against Alabama. No. 17 Cunha is from Jau, Brazil and Smith thinks the player is still adjusting to not only playing in a new country, but also to coming into a leadership position at such a young age.
“For a freshmen to come in and play No. 1 singles and doubles is about as tough as it gets,” Smith said. “I think getting used to the team environment is key because he came straight from junior tournaments. The last team he played on was when he was 13 and he is just getting more and more comfortable with the college environment.”
The loss against Alabama aside, Cunha has seen major success playing alongside his Duke teammates. Finishing an impressive Fall season with a 14-3 singles record and a 17-3 doubles record with Reid Carleton, the Brazilian won 12 of his first 13 collegiate matches. Cunha has a 5-1 record against ranked single players and has racked up three ranked doubles wins.
This weekend is the biggest nonconference weekend of the year for the Blue Devils. Not only will Duke face Illinois (2-1) on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center, but it will square off against No. 30 Notre Dame (3-2) at 12 p.m. Sunday. The Blue Devils finish the weekend against N.C. Central (0-2) Sunday night at 6 p.m.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.