No one expected them to be this good.
In the fall, Duke head coach Ramsey Smith paired sophomore Raphael Hemmeler with senior Henrique Cunha to form a potential doubles team for the fall season. Smith’s thought process: he knew their styles of play, and he knew that Cunha would enjoy playing with a good friend.
“Basically, we were thinking about Cunha for his last year, and his best shot to do well with someone,” Smith said. “And really the initial thing for the fall was, ‘Who was he going to have the most fun playing with?’ That was pretty clear-cut. [Hemmeler] is pretty fun to play with, and [we knew] that they would gel well and have good chemistry.”
Then the pair began winning.
“I wasn’t quite expecting them to be as dominant as they are,” Smith said. “I knew their games would complement each other, and that they would be a really good returning team.”
Ever since the departure of Reid Carleton, Cunha’s doubles partner the first two years of his Duke career, there has been some flip-flopping of pairings on the team.
Replacing a half of a former No. 1 doubles team was by no means easy, as Cunha played alongside Fred Saba and Chris Mengel for stretches of last season. Hemmeler primarily played at the No. 3 doubles position last year.
In the fall, Cunha and Hemmeler captured the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championship, a tournament that features the best players from across the country and is considered one of the most difficult competitions of the season. This win boosted their confidence and assured them of how good a pairing they actually were, as they held onto a 16-game win streak in the fall. They are currently riding a 10-game win streak and have so far notched an overall record of 30-3, last losing Feb. 17 against then-No. 5 Pepperdine.
More than being good, they’re fun to watch. Their style is aggressive and quick. Poaching and net play help the pair to end points almost as soon as they begin.
“We are pretty aggressive, we return well and have good hands at the net,” Cunha said. “We are really consistent. We are making the returns, making our serves and making the other guys play. On the court, we don’t put a lot of pressure on each other. We just support and help each other.”
What makes it all work is their close relationship.
“I know him pretty well, and he knows me pretty well, so I know how he is moving on the court, and we are really confident at the moment,” Hemmeler said. “We have a strong mentality, we enjoy playing together, and we just try to enjoy every match.”
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As a pair, the duo forms a rare double-lefty team. Compared to what people note as the ideal situation of a righty-lefty combination, this varied match-up gives the team a slight advantage during match play—especially on serves, when their ball spins the opposite direction of a right-handed player, making it more difficult to return and keep in play.
“Cunha is unbelievable with returning and serves well,” Smith said. “And Hemmeler is great around the net. Their personalities mesh really well on the court. Hemmeler is the energy guy, and then Cunha is the steady, stable, you know what you’re going to get, making balls player. It has been a special combo. They win the big points.”
Now, with the end of the regular season closing in, and tournament play about to begin in just a few weeks, it is key that every player and doubles team begins to peak at the right time. The No. 1 pairing in the country has improved throughout the course of the season beginning with the fall and seems to be on track.
The pressure associated with the top team doesn’t seem to trouble the duo.
“[The pressure of being on top] is a motivation, actually,” Cunha said. “It is an extra motivation to win each match because we know we have a higher ranking than anyone.”
Smith noted that the pressure was something that the pair have always faced both individually and as a team.
“They both have been winners all their lives, so they are used to winning, and they handle that pressure really well,” he said.
Looming beyond how the pairing fares at the end of this season, a bigger question facing the team is who will replace Cunha in next year’s campaign. Cunha, who is currently undefeated in singles play at the top position, is seemingly irreplaceable as one of the best players that has come through Duke. Yet, just like Smith had to reshuffle with the departure of Carleton, he will have to do the same next fall.
“I am trying to enjoy every match I get to watch Cunha play,” Smith said. “Two more home matches left, I am going to try to soak it all in and appreciate what he is doing and how well he is playing and how dominant he has been at No. 1. We have a lot of options [for next year], we have a lot of really good doubles players and a good freshman coming in. But [we will] focus on this year, and then worry about the next.”