For the fifth time in six years of hosting the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils are moving on from Durham to the quarterfinals in Waco, Texas.
Tenth-seeded Duke finished its season undefeated at home with a 4-1 win against Stanford in the second round of postseason play at Ambler Tennis Stadium Saturday afternoon. The victory moved the Blue Devils to 16-0 on their home court this season, making the team just one of nine in program history to go undefeated at home.
“[Finishing undefeated at home] says something to the Duke community and our fans,” sophomore T.J. Pura said. “Just playing here at Ambler is such a special feeling. Looking out here you can see Cameron and K-Ville—it’s so beautiful. It makes it a pleasure to play tennis out here.”
Saturday's win came by way of the comeback, as Duke (24-6) fell behind early after a tight set of doubles matches. The 20th-ranked doubles pair of Nicolas Alvarez and Raphael Hemmeler held a 7-6 lead on court one, but a strong finish by the Cardinal's ninth-ranked doubles team of John Morrissey and Robert Stineman took the match to a tiebreaker for Stanford (18-7). The Cardinal duo finished off Alvarez and Hemmeler 7-3 in the tiebreaker to win the match 8-7 at the first doubles position.
All eyes then turned to court two where Stanford looked to clinch the doubles point. Although the match went back and forth until the score was tied 3-3, the 69th-ranked doubles pair of Tom Fawcett and Maciek Romanowicz broke serve to make it 4-3 before taking two more games for a 6-3 lead. Duke’s Jason Tahir and Josh Levine broke serve and fought back to 6-5, but the Cardinal tandem put the match away by holding serve for a final score of 8-6.
“We knew doubles was one of their strong suits,” Tahir said. “I think they had won going into yesterday 10 or 15 doubles points in a row. We weren’t too worried…Today just goes to show we don’t need the doubles point. We were probably going to win all six singles. It’s just one point. There’s six other points on the board and we’ve just got to go out and try to get four.”
Trailing heading into singles, Alvarez—the No. 13 singles player in the country—returned to action for the Blue Devils on court one after being held out of singles play in Friday's first-round sweep of South Carolina State. Playing his first singles match since April 17th, Alvarez made quick work of the 26th-ranked Fawcett 6-4, 6-0 to even the match at 1-1.
“[Nico] played really well,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “One of the harder things to do as a tennis player is to be injured and not be able to train and compete the way you want to and then get thrown back in a pressure situation like this at No. 1…. I think Nico is the best freshman in the country when he’s healthy. He just came through in a big, big way for us.”
The Blue Devils dropped three of the other five first sets, giving Stanford life as the afternoon wore on. But after playing more than four hours against Tennessee the day before in a 4-3 win, the Cardinal began to wear down against the assault of a Duke squad that put South Carolina State away in just more than two hours Friday.
The Blue Devils claimed victories at third and fourth singles in the scorching heat as junior Bruno Semenzato and Hemmeler both won in straight sets. Semenzato put away Stanford’s David Hsu 6-2, 6-3, and Hemmeler was not far behind with a 6-4, 6-4 victory against David Wilczynski.
The best matches of the afternoon unfolded as Duke sought the clincher in the final three singles matches. In the end, Tahir and Pura found themselves racing to finish off the Cardinal for a ticket to the Round of 16.
On the second court, Tahir lost his opening set 2-6 and seemed to lose his composure against Morrissey after tossing his racket. But despite the frustration, the senior battled back in the second set 6-4—despite several more unforced errors—to even the match at one set apiece.
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“I was honestly not acting very mature out there in the first set, especially for a senior captain,” Tahir said. “I had some choice words for myself and I just had to pick it up…. I’m not going to let the team down like that. I had to pick up my energy and once I did that I just felt like I was the better player and I think that came true in the end.”
Tahir battled back in the third set to a 5-4 lead on court two, but attention shifted to Pura on court six as he came closer to winning the match for the Blue Devils against Nolan Paige. The sophomore dropped the first set 5-7 but found a rhythm in the second set for a 6-4 victory. With the match on the line, Pura found himself serving at double-match point with a 5-3 lead.
The Pacific Palisades, Calif., native sent a serve right into the top of the net, but it trickled over by just a hair to clinch the match 6-4 and give Duke its fourth straight point to advance.
“There is maybe a little bit of competition in there because you always want people rushing your court,” Pura said of his race with Tahir for the fourth point. “But either way if it would have been [Jason] or it would have been me, all the same, we’re going to Waco.”
With Pura victorious on court six, Tahir and redshirt senior Chris Mengel—who was leading 2-1 in the third set on court five—did not finish their respective matches.
The Blue Devils will travel to Waco for the Round of 16 against either Southern California or San Diego State May 14 at 8 p.m.