The last time the Blue Devils and Spartans met, it was 1978. Duke handily won 9-0, notching another victory to add to their 6-1 overall record against Michigan State.
The No. 12 Blue Devils will look to replicate their performance when they host the Spartans at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center Friday at 6 p.m. to kick off their spring season. Coming off of a successful training trip to Hawaii this past week, which was highlighted by senior Jason Tahir’s defeat of the top ranked player in the country—Louisville’s Sebastian Steifelmeyer—Duke is ready to begin action indoors.
“I felt like everyone came ready to play in Hawaii, which is encouraging, knowing that the guys worked really hard over break and were motivated," head coach Ramsey Smith said. “I thought we had very good practices in Hawaii. Then, obviously, we played well in the matches, singles and doubles."
The first point of any dual match is determined by doubles and can set the tone going into singles play. In the past, Duke has had its share of strong doubles teams in years past, and appears to be ready to continue to that trend this season.
During the USTA/ITA Carolina Regional in the fall, senior Raphael Hemmeler and freshman Nicolas Alvarez played together for the first time and made it to the semifinals. The tandem continued its successful partnership last week, racking up four victories during the trip to Hawaii, and could continue to play together in the spring.
"I was actually probably a little more impressed with doubles than singles, and that was something that wasn’t as strong in the fall,” Smith said. “We mixed around some of the doubles pairings, and I think we have what we are going to use this weekend. We certainly have a lot of options for doubles, and for singles too. We are deep this year.”
In the fall, most of the action was in the form of singles and doubles tournaments, in which players and duos competed to better their personal rankings. Friday will mark the first real dual match of the season, and the first indoor match before the ITA National Indoors in late February. But after his team's performance in Hawaii, Smith is confident his team will make a smooth adjustment.
“I thought Hawaii was a great transition—we played Hawaii the first day and Louisville the second day, and it was a kind of expanded dual match format that counted like an individual tournament,” Smith said. “We had all eight guys playing next to each other in singles and we got an extra round of doubles in each day."
One of the reasons last week's matches could prove vital to Duke's spring season is that the matchup with the Cardinals on day two essentially simulated an ACC dual match before the Blue Devils' first real one March 8 against Virginia Tech. Duke will also get an conference foe Wake Forest in the ITA Kick-Off Jan. 23.
For players like Alvarez, being thrown into the competitive environment a little sooner than expected could pay off against the Spartans and again when conference play officially begins.
"We kind of got that feel, especially that Louisville match really felt like an ACC dual match which is great to just get those juices flowing and for [Alvarez] just getting his first dual spring feel,” Smith said. “It wasn’t exactly a dual match but it felt like it and I think that will help us this weekend.”
The Spartans are led by the duo of second-team All-Big Ten junior John Patrick Mullane and the No. 76 player in the nation, senior Gijs Linders. Mullane and Harry Jadun are also the 56th-ranked doubles team in the nation and are looking to help Michigan State make the NCAA tournament after narrowly missing it a season ago.
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Although the Spartans did not make it past the Big Ten tournament last season, Smith is making sure his players do not underestimate a opponent they will be seeing for the first time.
“[Michigan State] is a new team for us. I know they are a good team and they are a dangerous team,” Smith said. “You look at the results last year and they had a lot of close losses to good teams. They are certainly a team that could have a much higher ranking.”