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Blue Devils stumble in ACC Championship

Freshman Henrique Cunha’s 18th consecutive win at No. 1 singles, against Virginia’s Michael Shabaz, kept his undefeated conference record intact.
Freshman Henrique Cunha’s 18th consecutive win at No. 1 singles, against Virginia’s Michael Shabaz, kept his undefeated conference record intact.

A third consecutive day of highly competitive tennis at the ACC tournament ended on a sour note for second-seeded Duke, as the Blue Devils pushed top-seeded Virginia to its limit but ultimately were dealt a 4-2 loss Sunday in the championship match in Cary, N.C.

Overall, though, the weekend was a successful one for Duke (18-8). The Blue Devils earned two consecutive 4-0 wins to reach the final, and they took all but one match in singles play against the Cavaliers to the third set.

Duke opened up poorly against Virginia (35-1) and dropped the doubles point in a hurry—the Cavaliers easily won at Nos. 2 and 3 to render the top doubles match, a match the Blue Devils have become accustomed to winning behind the duo of Henrique Cunha and Reid Carleton, meaningless.

But that hardly fazed a confident Duke squad, even though each of Virginia’s singles players are ranked among the top 107 in the country.

“[Virginia is] loaded... but even after we lost the doubles point, I told the guys I thought we could win at every position,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “There’s not one position where I thought we didn’t have a chance.”

Smith was right—the only match to end in straight sets was the one at the third position between Duke’s Dylan Arnould and Virginia’s Jarmere Jenkins, which Jenkins won 6-4, 6-4. And even in that contest, Arnould was up a break late in the first set before Jenkins fought back.

With Duke down 2-0 at that point, the Blue Devils needed a spark, and they got one from Cunha, the team’s best player, and Luke Marchese, playing at No. 6. Both players pulled out tight three-setters to keep Duke alive against the Cavaliers.

Virginia proved to be too good, though, and wins at Nos. 4 and 5 were enough to give it the conference title.

Even still, Smith said he was proud of his team, especially at the top and bottom of the order.

“The bookends, one and six, have been rock solid for us,” Smith said. “They’ve been our two most dependable points, and Luke has battled through some adversity and he’s found a way to win. He’s been phenomenal for us all year.”

Smith also raved about Cunha’s performance. The Brazilian freshman, who was named ACC Player of the Year last week, has been just about untouchable for Duke at the top of the rotation, and he will go into the NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites in individual play.

“This is the 18th straight match at No. 1 that he’s won, and it’s getting a little ridiculous, the records that he’s breaking,” Smith said of Cunha. “It’s hard to comprehend what he’s doing.”

Before the Virginia match, though, the Blue Devils had plenty of work to do just to reach the finals. Duke trounced Florida State Friday morning but had a much more difficult time putting Wake Forest away in the semifinals Saturday.

The Demon Deacons had upset third-seeded North Carolina in the quarterfinals, yet they looked out of their game early on against Duke. The Blue Devils won the doubles point and got two quick wins from Cunha and Carleton to put them up 3-0.

At that point, Wake Forest started to turn the match around—the Demon Deacons battled back to take the lead at all three spots at the bottom of the rotation—and it took a three-set win from Duke No. 2 Reid Carleton against his younger brother, Tripper, to push Duke into the championship match.

Reid Carleton said earlier in the week that he would have preferred not to face his brother, and the match’s end was full of awkward moments—the two brothers, both of whom are extremely emotional on the court, shared an uncomfortable handshake after Reid’s victory, Tripper threw his racket across the court and Reid slammed a ball as far as he could in the moments after the match.

Looking ahead for Duke, the Blue Devils’ run to the conference championship match puts the team in good position to host an NCAA Tournament regional, meaning that Duke would play its first- and second-round matches at Ambler Tennis Stadium on campus.

Smith said he thought his team had a good chance of being rewarded by the NCAA selection committee with a home draw, but added that the Blue Devils will be ready no matter where they are sent for the postseason.

“If we host, great,” Smith said. “And if we don’t host, we’ll just have to win somewhere else.”

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