Despite losing to Southern California in the Round of 16 of the NCAA team championship, a trio of Blue Devils remained in Waco, Texas, for the singles tournament. But after Wednesday's first round, only freshman Nicolas Alvarez was left standing.
Alvarez took care of Drake's Alen Salibasic in their first-round matchup at the Hurd Tennis Center, but seniors Raphael Hemmeler and Jason Tahir saw their singles careers come to a close with opening-round three-set losses. With the win, Alvarez advances to Thursday's second round against Winston Lin of Columbia and will also team up with Hemmeler in the opening round of the NCAA doubles tournament.
The Blue Devils were coached by assistant coach Jonathan Stokke Wednesday while head coach Ramsey Smith was with his wife Kathy in Durham, where they celebrated the birth of their second child.
No. 57 Hemmeler was the first Blue Devil to take the court Wednesday, facing off against No. 23 Jared Hiltzik of Illinois. The Zurich native captured the first set against Hiltzik by a score of 7-6 (3) but dropped the next two sets 3-6 and 2-6 to ultimately lose the match.
“[Hemmeler] has a top-five to top-ten career in the history of the program,” Stokke said. “The first set was neck-and-neck, [Hemmeler] played a good tie-breaker and did not give up the set. After that, he came up short on a couple of points and just had some bad luck and came up on the wrong end.”
Hemmeler was named the Farnsworth Senior Player of the Year by the ITA Carolina Region last week and will have the opportunity to extend his Duke career further when he and Alvarez—ranked No. 20—take the court in the NCAA doubles championship against South Carolina’s team of Kyle Koch and Thiago Pinheiro, ranked No. 29.
Ranked 13th in the country heading into the NCAA tournament, Alvarez had no problems dispatching Salibasic 6-4, 6-2, leading wire-to-wire to move on in his first NCAA singles tournament match.
No. 41 Tahir was the last Blue Devil to start Wednesday and faced the toughest opponent of the trio—No. 2 Julian Lenz of Baylor. But like Hemmeler, the senior surprised his opponent in the first set with an early 6-2 victory. Lenz was able to regroup, though, coming back to win a tight second set 7-6 (3) before closing the book on Tahir's Duke career with a 6-2 win in the decisive third set.
At one point, Tahir, up 5-4 in the second set, was two points away from the upset, but Lenz rallied to 5-5 and eventually the seven-point tiebreaker, which he won 7-3.
“[Tahir] definitely had the toughest opponent of all three guys,” Stokke said. “I thought [Lenz] played well, and he is one of the best players in the tournament. [Tahir] had a chance serving 4-3 in the second set, and then serving 5-4, but [Lenz] played pretty good points, and once [Lenz] got a second life, he played an incredible third set.”
When Alvarez and Hemmeler take the court Thursday, not only will they be battling their opponent, but also the extreme heat of Waco.
“It is really humid here,” Stokke said. “I don’t know what the hell is going on in Waco, but it is definitely one of the top two or three most humid places I’ve ever been. These guys are just soaking wet after three or four games.”
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Alvarez and Hemmeler will take the court after the conclusion of Alvarez’s second round singles matchup against Lin, which is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m.