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One tennis ball at a time

A multi-vehicle collision at approximately 6 p.m. Tuesday caused police to stop traffic at the intersection of Science and Towerview drives.
A multi-vehicle collision at approximately 6 p.m. Tuesday caused police to stop traffic at the intersection of Science and Towerview drives.

Accepting the head coaching position of a team fresh off a national semifinal appearance may seem like a dream. Continuing a tradition of excellence, however, can quickly become a daunting experience.

This was exactly the position that head coach Jamie Ashworth found himself in halfway through the 1997 season, after the departure of former head coach Jody Hyden. When he was suddenly put in charge of one of Duke’s most successful programs, all eyes were on Ashworth to see if he had what it took to lead the team.

“It wasn’t an easy transition,” Ashworth said. “However, the only pressure that I felt has been my own."

To put the challenge into perspective, head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski finished his first season at Duke with a modest 17-13 record and went 21-34 in the next two seasons, though he entered under decidedly different circumstances. While the Blue Devils had reached the national semifinals two years prior, they had not established themselves as a basketball power.

Ashworth, however, never doubted his ability to succeed as the Blue Devils’ coach.

In his first full year as head coach, Ashworth took the team to a school record 27 wins, its 11th straight ACC regular season and tournament titles and its first title match in the NCAA tournament. The season ended with Duke’s best final national ranking at No. 2, continuing the winning tradition and surpassing all expectations. It is clear that what both Krzyzewski and Ashworth have in common is the ability to take a program, whether it is already built up or just beginning, and raise the bar to reach new heights.

“I always knew that Duke was a place where you could be successful. That was one of the reasons why I came here,” Ashworth said.

Ashworth’s first true defining moment came in 2009, when Duke defeated California in the final round of the NCAA tournament, winning the title for the first time in school history. In recognition of his accomplishment, Ashworth decided to keep the tennis ball that then-senior Melissa Mang hit to clinch the victory.

Other than consistent success in the NCAA tournament, both Ashworth and Krzyzewski have also proven themselves to be record breakers. With a 4-3 win over No. 8 Virginia Mar. 23, Ashworth improved his coaching record to 353-82, toppling former North Carolina head coach Kitty Harrison’s career ACC women’s tennis wins record. Ashworth reached the record-breaking mark in just 16 seasons—five fewer than Harrison—and his .811 winning percentage eclipses Harrison’s .610. Ashworth kept the ball from win No. 353 as well, but this time he threw it into the stands for his wife.

“I never really thought about that record until after that match,” Ashworth said.

When you talk to Ashworth about his success, not only as one of the best coaches at Duke, but in the entire nation, he is quick to congratulate everyone but himself.

“The girls are the ones that make up Duke tennis, not me,” Ashworth said. “Whether it is the ACC wins streak or the 353 wins, or the national championship, it comes back to them and the great players over the last 15 years.”

While these great players undoubtedly make up the heart of the program, it has been Ashworth’s job to consistently recruit the world’s best. He attributes this feat primarily to the student-athletes, as well as Krzyzewski himself. Ashworth described the tremendous support that Krzyzewski has given to him and the program over the years, including talking to some of his tennis recruits.

“I sat in on [Krzyzewski] one time as he talked about the branding of Duke,” Ashworth said. “It really hit home with one of our recruits that she will always be known as a Duke student-athlete. He showed me that the branding of Duke is a global phenomenon and how we can take advantage of that.”

The progress that Ashworth has made while coaching the Blue Devils has placed him among the highest esteemed women’s tennis coaches in the nation. No. 3 Duke has now been ranked in the nation’s top five for the 23rd consecutive poll, the country’s longest active streak. The expectations are as high as ever, but Ashworth looks past the statistics, streaks, records, and history. He simply wants to see the best out of his team.

While he may never reach the same level of fame as the coach from the other side of Krzyzewskiville, this would be unfitting for Ashworth, who finds more joy in seeing his players success than his own.

“I love… watching the girls grow over their time here, watching them grow into leaders, learning their roles and being successful in their roles.” Ashworth said.

So while ESPN will continue to broadcast Krzyzewski cutting down the net after an NCAA championship, to see Ashworth celebrate a championship one would have to look closely as he quietly walks over to the court and picks up a single tennis ball for safekeeping in a quickly growing collection.

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