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Alvarez returns as Duke men's tennis rolls in NCAA tournament opener

Freshman Nicolas Alvarez returned from injury as the Blue Devils cruised past South Carolina State Friday afternoon.
Freshman Nicolas Alvarez returned from injury as the Blue Devils cruised past South Carolina State Friday afternoon.

Buoyed by home-court advantage and the return of their freshman star, the Blue Devils cruised in their NCAA tournament opener.

Tenth-seeded Duke cruised to a 5-0 sweep against South Carolina State Friday afternoon in just more than two hours at Ambler Tennis Stadium. The Blue Devils—who improved to 15-0 at home this season—did not drop a set en route to victory and were not bothered by the 80-degree conditions.

With the win, Duke clinched a Saturday date with Stanford, which dispatched Tennessee 4-2 in Friday's first contest in four hours. After resting for two weeks since their loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, the Blue Devils are hoping they can pick up where they left off Saturday to advance to the Round of 16.

Senior Jason Tahir blanked his singles opponent 6-0, 6-0 to set the tone for Duke's win Friday.

"Especially outdoors and in the heat, the courts really play to our advantage," senior Jason Tahir said. "Hopefully it's hot and humid tomorrow. Stanford is from northern California so we want them huffing and puffing. We like when the match gets physical."

Duke (23-6) got off to a fast start in doubles Friday and never looked back against the Bulldogs (14-5). All three Blue Devil doubles tandems seized early breaks and got comfortable on serve, with Tahir and junior Josh Levine exiting the court first with an 8-1 victory against Soufiane Mouline and Edgar Diaz.

But Duke's top doubles tandem received most of the attention Friday.

Blue Devil star freshman Nicolas Alvarez—who missed the team's previous three matches with a muscle injury—returned to action Friday and got his rhythm on the court back alongside senior doubles partner Raphael Hemmeler.

The 20th-ranked doubles pair knocked off South Carolina State's Rodney Carey and Martin Figura 8-3 to clinch the doubles point for the home team. When Duke won the doubles point, its tandem of junior Bruno Semenzato and sophomore T.J. Pura was leading 6-4 in the No. 3 doubles match.

"Rafa was very supportive and we took it to them—it felt really good," Alvarez said. "I'm not having any pain, so I'll be ready for tomorrow to play two matches."

Alvarez—who occupied the No. 1 singles spot in Duke's lineup for much of the season—was held out of singles Friday, with head coach Ramsey Smith saying he would determine whether or not the Lima, Peru, native would play in singles Saturday as the match against Stanford unfolds.

Even without Alvarez playing singles, Duke maintained control of the match thanks to the strong play of Tahir and company. The Rochester, N.Y., native played at No. 1 singles and dominated Carey, taking advantage of his opponent's erratic groundstrokes and relying on his serve to blank his opponent 6-0, 6-0 win in approximately 45 minutes.

"I focused a lot on just my fitness and playing a lot of tennis," Tahir said when asked how he spent the two weeks between matches. "I really wanted to feel prepared and I know a lot of the guys felt the same way, so we put in a lot of time on the courts even though we were in finals. I feel like we're ready to go. We're healthy and we're looking forward to tomorrow."

Tahir's partner in crime on the doubles court, Levine, followed suit at the No. 5 singles spot, winning the first set against Stanislav Baco without losing a game and giving the Blue Devils a 3-0 lead by winning the second 6-3.

It was then a race at the No. 4 and No. 5 singles positions to determine who would close out the match for Duke, as both Pura and redshirt senior Chris Mengel enjoyed commanding leads in the second set.

Pura ended up barely closing out his match before his teammate—who was playing on the court closest to his—finishing off Jakub Vitek 6-2, 6-2 and punctuating the match for the Blue Devils with a yell after the winning point to fire up the home crowd.

Mengel led Mouline 6-1, 5-2 when the match was clinched and finished out the second set for Duke's fifth point of the afternoon. At the No. 2 singles spot, Hemmeler won a tough first set against Figura, leading 7-5, 1-0 when Pura sealed the victory.

Duke's experience was on display Friday, as the Blue Devils did not miss a beat despite the long layoff and long wait time before the match. Duke was originally slated to start its match at 1 p.m., but because of the length of Stanford's bout with the Volunteers did not take the court until after 2 p.m.

Tahir said the team was used to having to wait to get matches started, explaining that the Blue Devils found a new way to stay loose Friday afternoon.

"We were actually having some fun in the locker room playing Rapchat—that app [that allows you to record raps and send them to friends]," Tahir said.

Duke will look to use a similar formula to dispatch the Cardinal and advance to the next round of the tournament in Waco, Texas. But despite conserving energy by finishing off South Carolina State quickly, the Blue Devils know they cannot look too far ahead.

"Stanford has been playing exceptionally well, especially the second half of the season," Smith said. "They play good doubles, they're aggressive in singles and they toughed out a really tough match today. That's going to give them a lot of confidence. It should be a really good match tomorrow."

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