Needing to win its last two games of the regular season to secure the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye in this week’s ACC tournament, Duke came up just short.
The No. 8 Blue Devils opened up their final pair of regular season matches Friday at Louisville, defeating the Cardinals 5-2 at the Bass-Rudd Tennis Center. The victory meant that all Duke needed to do to head into the conference tournament as the third seed was avoid an upset on the road against Georgia Tech Sunday. But the Blue Devils got into an early hole against the Yellow Jackets and though they battled back, were not able to recover, ultimately losing 4-3 at the Kenn Byers Tennis Complex.
The loss means that Duke will head into the ACC tournament as the No. 5 seed and will not get the first-round bye the No. 3 seed is awarded.
“I don’t think [seeding] was a factor during the match,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Of course it would be nice to get that first round bye for ACCs, but we’re still a top-five seed and had an excellent regular season and are excited to start the postseason.”
Friday’s match against Louisville (23-7, 7-5 in the ACC) was highlighted by the dual between the Cardinals' No. 7 Sebastian Steifelmeyer and Duke’s No. 11 Nicolas Alvarez. Alvarez put in a strong performance against the Louisville senior—who has spent most of the season as the No. 1 ranked player in the country—but came up just short in a three-set thriller, losing 2-6, 6-3, 5-7.
“I thought Nico did a great job,” Smith said. “He got down early, lost the first set, but he battled back and it was a very physical match. [There were] a lot of long rallies and he really worked his way into the match nicely and put himself in a position to win.”
Luckily for the Blue Devils (21-5, 8-4), Alvarez’s loss did not matter in the end, as they put in a solid overall performance playing for the first time at Louisville on the Cardinals’ Senior Day in front of a large home crowd. The squad began the match by winning its fourth doubles point in five matches and got out to a quick 2-0 lead as senior Jason Tahir defeated Alex Gornet 6-0, 6-2. Victories by junior Bruno Semenzato and redshirt senior Chris Mengel sealed the victory for Duke before sophomore T.J. Pura won his match against Luis Elizondo 6-7 (5), 6-3, 1-0 (8) to give the team its fifth point.
The only other loss for the Blue Devils came at the hands of Louisville’s Albert Wagner, who defeated senior Raphael Hemmeler 6-4, 6-3 and snapped Hemmeler’s nine-match ACC winning streak. Had the Zurich native won the match, he would have set a school record for consecutive wins in conference play.
“It was an off day for Rafa,” Smith said. “He’s been our most consistent performer for the spring and one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever coached. Wagner is a ranked player and it was his Senior Day and he played extremely well.”
Duke then headed into Sunday’s match against Georgia Tech (12-11, 4-8) still in a good position to earn the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament. But the team did have to make some lineup adjustments before the match—Alvarez and Mengel were not available due to injuries—and could not get past a strong performance by the Yellow Jackets.
The Blue Devils dug themselves into a little bit of a hole early on, dropping the first doubles match as the Georgia Tech duo of Christopher Eubanks and Michael Kay defeated Pura and Semenzato 8-5. The Yellow Jackets’ Carlos Benito and Eduardo Segura sealed the doubles point with a tiebreak victory against Tahir and junior Josh Levine 8-7 (2).
Duke found itself down 2-0 after Segura defeated junior Daniel McCall 6-2, 6-3 at the No. 6 singles spot. But the Blue Devils got back into the match after Levine topped Kay 6-4, 7-6 (3) and Tahir—back in the No. 1 singles spot—defeated Eubanks 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
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A loss by Pura and a win by Semenzato meant that the match would come down to a third set between Hemmeler and Benito. The Duke senior was not able to fend off the upset and eventually dropped the contest 6-7 (11), 6-3, 3-6.
“It was an exciting college tennis match,” Smith said. “First off, I think [Georgia Tech is] a really good team and they’re a lot better than their record indicates. I thought they played extremely well, especially towards the end…. I was actually really pleased with how we fought and we gave ourselves a chance at the end there.”
Despite the disappointing end to their regular season, the campaign was still one of the program's best recent regular season performances. The Blue Devils were never ranked lower than No. 12 in the country and took down eight top-25 opponents.
Duke will now look to put this loss in the rearview mirror and get back to its winning ways, as its begins the ACC tournament against 12th-seeded Miami Thursday at noon at the Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C.