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Duke men's tennis to host NCAA regional for sixth straight year

Freshman Nicolas Alvarez has missed Duke's last three matches with a muscle injury but could be back for the NCAA tournament opener May 8.
Freshman Nicolas Alvarez has missed Duke's last three matches with a muscle injury but could be back for the NCAA tournament opener May 8.

The Blue Devils will enjoy the comfort of their home courts once again for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Tenth-seeded Duke was selected as a host for the regionals for the sixth straight season when the NCAA tournament bracket was unveiled Tuesday evening. The Blue Devils will welcome South Carolina State to Ambler Stadium May 8 at 1 p.m. after a matchup between Stanford and Tennessee at 10 a.m.

"We're just really excited to be hosting," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. "There are only 16 teams in the entire country that get to host, and it's based on your body of work throughout the year, and I'm just excited for our guys."

The Blue Devils (22-6) went undefeated at home in the regular season, winning all 14 matches, with four of them coming against top-20 teams. Duke also finished 8-4 in the ACC, which boasts nine teams in the NCAA tournament including fellow hosts Wake Forest, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Virginia.

"The ACC has gotten stronger each year, and I think this is the strongest it's been in awhile," Smith said. "I think it's helped us be battle tested throughout the ACC season, so we're going to be ready for the postseason."

The Blue Devils' first-round opponent hails from the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference as the league's automatic qualifier. The Bulldogs (14-4) went 4-0 in conference, claiming the regular season conference title. The MEAC tournament final went unfinished due to weather, but South Carolina State had won a spot in the championship match before it was cancelled and earned the NCAA bid due to the conference title.

Duke has been dominant in first-round matches for more than 30 years, losing to TCU in the 1982 tournament and winning every opening match since. The 2005 first-round victory came with a 4-0 win against the Bulldogs. Friday will mark the first meeting between the two teams since that match and second ever in program history.

"They're certainly going to be hungry, and they're going to have nothing to lose," Smith said. "They're definitely a dangerous first opponent, and we're going to need to be ready to go."

The Blue Devils suffered a narrow loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals April 24. Duke was without its top singles player—freshman Nicolas Alvarez—who missed the final match of the regular season and the entire conference tournament due to a muscle injury.

Smith said the Blue Devils are hopeful for Alvarez's return in time for the first-round match.

"He was obviously out for ACCs, and we are slowly working him back in and hopefully he'll be ready to go," Smith said. "We're planning on having him, but we're certainly prepared if he can't play."

The Volunteers will visit Durham for the second time in two regional tournaments, having traveled to Durham for the 2014 NCAA tournament as well and ending the road for Duke with a 4-2 victory. This season, Tennessee is up against a strong Cardinal team that won six of seven conference matches and lost in the conference final to a Southern California team that received the No. 7 overall seed in the tournament.

"Tennessee and Stanford is going to be a great match," Smith said. "Stanford's playing its best tennis of the year...but obviously Tennessee has been really good.... We're focusing on South Carolina State, but those other two teams are very good, and it's going to be a great match"

The winners of the two Friday matches will advance to the regional final May 9 at 1 p.m. The victorious squad continues to Waco, Texas, for the quarterfinals the following weekend. In four of their past five years hosting, the Blue Devils have advanced out of Durham and into the quarterfinals.