CARY, N.C.—On one of the biggest stages of the season, the loss of its best player caught up to Duke.
The No. 9 Blue Devils fell to No. 16 North Carolina 4-3 Friday in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Cary Tennis Park. Despite capturing the doubles point, Duke could not overcome the absence of freshman Nicolas Alvarez, who is currently nursing a muscle injury.
The Blue Devils have now lost to their in-state rivals twice this season.
“When it came down to it, it was a point or two here and there,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “But I thought it was a great effort by our guys. Obviously we’re playing a little short-handed…playing without our best player. We certainly put ourselves in position to win, but we couldn’t quite finish it off.”
In doubles, Duke (22-6) overcame the absence of Alvarez—the 14th-ranked singles player in the country—by knocking off the Tar Heels (21-9) in two of the three matches.
North Carolina first gained the upper hand as Jack Murray and Ronnie Schneider defeated senior Raphael Hemmeler and junior Daniel McCall 8-5 at the No. 3 spot. But the duo of senior Jason Tahir and junior Josh Levine quickly evened the doubles score with an 8-7 (3) victory against Brayden Schnur and Esben Hess-Olesen at the first doubles position. Tahir and Levine finally put the match away after Schur and Hess-Olesen had erased a 6-3 deficit with a timely three-game run.
Duke clinched the doubles point when the No. 2 team of junior Bruno Semenzato and sophomore T.J. Pura defeated Brett Clark and Robert Kelly 8-6. The Tar Heel tandem—ranked 39th nationally—struggled to find an answer to Semenzato’s dangerous net game.
“The doubles was very impressive because UNC is so good in doubles,” Smith said. “To slide our two and three teams up and have a new team at three with McCall—who hasn’t really played much at all this year—I thought I was an incredible effort.”
But as singles play went back and forth and the match came down to the wire, Alvarez’s absence loomed large.
The Blue Devils initially maintained their momentum from doubles play. Pura—playing at the No. 6 spot—gave Duke its second point of the match as he steamrolled Andrew Gores 6-0, 6-1.
But North Carolina quickly struck back with Kelly’s 7-6 (6), 6-3 defeat of Levine at fifth singles. Levine surrendered the first three games of the second set as he was unable to bounce back from his narrow loss in the opening set.
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At the No. 1 spot, Schur’s come-from-behind win against No. 46 Tahir—who filled in for Alvarez—knotted the match at 2-2. In the first set, Tahir displayed poise and experience as he overcame a 5-2 deficit to tie the set at 7-7 and win the ensuing tiebreaker 8-6. But Schur—ranked No. 12 in the country—quickly elevated his level of play, taking the second and third sets 6-3, 6-3 to help the Tar Heels draw even in the match.
Duke suffered its third consecutive singles loss when No. 68 Clark rallied to upend Semenzato at the No. 3 position. Semenzato raced out to a 5-0 lead in the first set before Clark picked up steam and won two straight games. Although Semenzato closed out the first set 6-2, Clark maintained his momentum and won the next two sets 6-4, 7-5.
"In singles, we certainly had some chances," Smith said. "There were a couple of momentum swings."
Within minutes of Semenzato's defeat, the Blue Devils countered with No. 70 Hemmeler’s 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-0 win against No. 23 Ronnie Schneider. In the second set, Hemmeler’s back was against the wall as Schneider tried to serve out the match up 6-5. Once the Zurich native broke serve and forced a tiebreaker, he never looked back.
With the score knotted at 3-3, North Carolina clinched the match as Murray edged out redshirt senior Chris Mengel in three sets. Mengel rebounded from Murray’s 6-2 win in the first set, taking the second set 6-4. But as the match came down to the wire, the former Pennsylvania state champion ran out of gas and surrendered the third set 7-5.
"When we played them in their place [earlier in the season], we slipped up a couple of spots and didn’t really bring it," Smith said. But I felt like both teams brought it all [today].”
Although the outcome against the Tar Heels could have been different with Alvarez healthy, Smith said he believes his squad benefitted from playing without its top player.
“I think we can certainly take the positives out of this,” Smith said. “Nico [Alvarez] being out gave other guys opportunities and we’ll most likely need that at some point the rest of the way.”
A healthy Alvarez back in the lineup could dramatically help the Blue Devils make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, which begins in early May.