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Blue Devil men's tennis set to face Baylor in first round of ITA National Indoors

In the Blue Devils' last match, senior Raphael Hemmeler joined head coach Ramsey Smith as one of five players in program history to reach the 100-win plateau in both singles and doubles play.
In the Blue Devils' last match, senior Raphael Hemmeler joined head coach Ramsey Smith as one of five players in program history to reach the 100-win plateau in both singles and doubles play.

A year ago, Duke was set to play No. 2 UCLA in the ITA National Team Indoors. But with Winter Storm Pax producing six inches of snow, the Blue Devils were stuck in the Triangle and missed their opportunity to knock off the undefeated Bruins.

This year, with sunny skies ahead, the No. 6 Blue Devils will head to Chicago Friday to take on Baylor in the first round of this year's ITA National Team Indoors. Duke will be strong contenders in the tournament after racing to its second best start in program history at 9-0. The last time Duke had such a record was in 1933 when the team finished the season undefeated.

"We've had a lot of close matches," head coach Ramsey Smith said. "They haven't all been easy but we've found a way to get through every one of those matches."

Last weekend, the Blue Devils topped Michigan 6-1 and N.C. Central 6-1 to maintain their undefeated record. In the victories, senior Raphael Hemmeler collected his 100th and 101st career singles wins, joining Smith as one of five players in program history to reach the 100-win plateau in both singles and doubles play. Following these pivotal victories, Hemmeler earned the Ronald McDonald House Athlete of the Week Award.

With strong momentum heading into the tournament, Duke is ready to take on 16 of the best teams in the country. In their first round of competition, the Blue Devils will face No. 11 Baylor (4-1).

The Bears are led by 10th-ranked junior Julian Lenz, who is 13-3 in singles play on the year and will pair with classmate Felipe Rios in doubles play. Baylor also boasts No. 27 Tony Lupieri as its second singles seed. The Zagreb, Croatia native enters the tournament with a 10-3 record.

Duke along with No. 3 Virginia and No. 7 North Carolina will represent the ACC.

“Our guys are ready for this national stage and we’ve certainly earned it,” Smith said. “Team chemistry has been extremely good, our leadership has been good with Chris Mengel and Jason Tahir as our co-captains and we’ve competed extremely well.”

In addition to solid leadership by the team’s veterans, Duke has added two freshmen to the squad with Nicolas Alvarez and Andrew DeJoy. In just his first few months at the collegiate level, Alvarez has distinguished himself as one of the nation's top rookies and has earned the top singles and doubles spot for the Blue Devils.

This week the Peru native secured a No. 9 ranking and has been instrumental in the team’s early success. He will be matched up against Lenz, as the nation's ninth and tenth-best players will do battle in the opening round.

“To be able to step in and work his way through the line up and have such incredible results is really impressive for a freshman, but he’s incredibly mature, he’s got a big game,” Smith said.“He’s really eager and willing to get better and keep working. And he’s been a tremendous addition to the program.”

In a productive week of practice, Duke has been polishing its doubles game. Pairs play has been a key area that the Blue Devils have struggled with of late, as Duke dropped two matches against Northwestern and Tennessee, ceding the doubles point.

In a duals format, the doubles point is crucial in setting the tone and giving the team a one-point advantage going into singles competition. Against Baylor, the Blue Devils will look to open strong and capture the early advantage.

“The doubles point is definitely important,” Smith said. “We’ve lost it twice this year and then bounced back really strongly in singles, so I think the main thing is fine-tuning the doubles work.”

Hoping to maintain an undefeated record, the Blue Devils are eager to compete in the tournament after being forced to take a year off.

Last season, Duke had won three-of-four matches heading into the tournament, including a 4-2 victory at home against the rival Tar Heels. With the opportunity to finally compete on the national stage, the Blue Devils are determined to make the most of it.

“It just makes it even more exciting because we got that opportunity taken away from us last year,” Smith said.

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