The road to an ACC championship begins Thursday. Luckily for the Blue Devils, they do not have to travel very far.
No. 9 Duke will make the short trek to the Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C. for a match at noon Thursday against Miami in the first round of the ACC tournament. The fifth-seeded Blue Devils are hoping to get back to full health to make a run at a conference title, but will have to navigate around the 12th-seeded Hurricanes before setting their sights on a field that includes five of the top 16 teams in the country.
Freshman Nicolas Alvarez—the No. 14 player in the country—and redshirt senior Chris Mengel sat out Sunday's regular season finale against Georgia Tech nursing injuries. Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said Alvarez was listed back at first singles on the lineup he submitted for Thursday's match.
"They're both dealing with injuries and they're both getting better," Smith said. "We'll hope that both of them will be ready to go for Thursday.
With Alvarez and Mengel out, the Blue Devils (21-5) had to shuffle around their doubles lineup but managed to put together three competitive matches against the Yellow Jackets. Daniel McCall stepped into Alvarez's slot, joining senior Raphael Hemmeler at third doubles to beat Casey Kay and Nathan Rackitt 8-6.
Senior Jason Tahir and Josh Levine moved up into the top position normally held by Alvarez and Hemmeler, but lost their match 8-7. Bruno Semenzato and T.J. Pura moved onto court two but fell 8-5, handing Georgia Tech the doubles point, just the fourth time in the last six matches Duke has entered singles play down 1-0. The Blue Devils eventually dropped the contest, 4-3.
The loss cost Duke a bye into Friday's quarterfinals, but as they have all season, the Blue Devils will employ a short memory and move onto Thursday's match. Bolstered by the veteran leadership of Mengel, Tahir, Hemmeler and Semenzato, Duke is 5-0 after a loss this spring.
"Every time we've lost, we've bounced back really strong in the next match, so we'll do that again," Smith said.
Depending on the health of Alvarez and Mengel, Duke and Miami may look very different from the squads that took the courts March 15 in Durham—a 6-1 victory for the Blue Devils. Half of the Hurricanes' singles lineup in that contest did not play in Miami's regular season finale against No. 4 Virginia on Senior Day. No. 85 Piotr Lomacki pushed Tahir to the brink in the teams' earlier meeting, claiming a first-set victory before falling 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (1).
"Lomacki's a really good player, [he] had a great fall. He beat Bruno in the fall at All-Americans in like a three-hour match," Semenzato. "He's a super-talented freshman, strong from the ground on both sides. He moves well and has a lot of good feel. That's certainly going to be a tough spot."
The Hurricanes (7-16) enter postseason on a six-match losing streak, but earned a pair of singles upsets against the Cavaliers—the ACC tournament favorites—in their most recent loss.
No team had taken more than a single point from Virginia in ACC play since Wake Forest March 6. But freshman Christian Langmo outlasted No. 4 Ryan Shane in three sets and senior Wilfredo Gonzalez—whose two-set loss to Semenzato in March went to two tiebreakers—took down No. 77 Collin Altamirano 6-2, 6-2.
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"They're certainly dangerous," Smith said. "They're strong at the top with their one, two, three and they have pretty good depth as well, so we'll just have to be ready to go."
With first serve scheduled for noon Thursday, Smith will get his team off campus early in the afternoon and away from the full slate of events scheduled for LDOC to avoid any and all distractions.
"[We] get them off campus. We have preassigned practice courts in Cary for tomorrow at three," Smith said. "Guys will go to class in the morning, we'll go practice out there, team meal, hotel and not going to enjoy the festivities as much as the average Duke student."