After taking down South Carolina State and Stanford in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in Durham, Duke heads to Texas for the Round of 16 to face the defending national champions.
The 10th-seeded Blue Devils will take on seventh-seeded Southern California Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Hurd Tennis Center in Waco, Texas. The appearance in the tournament's second weekend marks the fifth time in six seasons that the Blue Devils find themselves four wins away from a national championship. But to advance, Duke will have to find a way past a Trojan team that has won the title in five of the last six years.
“[The Round of 16] is such an elite group of teams,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We are very pleased that we are here… [USC] has been extremely successful, but I think that we are ready, we have got some momentum from the past weekend, we are finally healthy and I think that this is a great opportunity where we have certainly got nothing to lose.”
After defeating Stanford 4-1 Saturday, the last several days have been a whirlwind for the Blue Devils (24-6). The team had a day off Sunday as Duke's seniors went through commencement exercises before returning to the practice courts Monday.
The Blue Devils flew to the Lone Star State and did not get to Waco until 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, Smith said, and they have spent the last two days preparing for the Trojans (24-4).
Southern California’s doubles lineup boasts two ranked teams that will present a stiff challenge for Duke to start out the match. At the first doubles position, the 20th-ranked team of Raphael Hemmeler and Nicolas Alvarez will most likely face the Trojans' third-ranked team of Yannick Hanfmann and Roberto Quiroz. At No. 2 doubles, Jason Tahir and Josh Levine will likely take on the Trojans’ No. 74 Max de Vroome and Eric Johnson. Rounding out the doubles lineup, Duke’s Bruno Semenzato and TJ Pura will likely go up against Nick Crystal and Thibault Forget.
Tuesday, Hemmeler was named the Farnsworth Senior Player of the Year by the ITA Carolina Region, an award that Smith attributes to Hemmeler’s consistency at No. 1 doubles and No. 3 singles.
“[Hemmeler] has had an incredible four years,” Smith said. “He has been one of our most consistent players in dual match play. He tends to play his best when it is all about the team, and he is one of those guys who has played well in both singles and doubles, and he brings a lot of positive energy to every match. He has done a great job with [Alvarez] this year.”
Alvarez—ranked 13th in singles—will likely be back at the top of the Blue Devils' singles lineup against No. 15 Hanfmann, who broke five-match losing streak in singles competition with a win against Idaho's Odon Barta in the first round of the NCAA tournament—his second round bout was suspended after his team clinched the victory. Alvarez has only recently rejoined the lineup, playing singles against Stanford after sitting out the final match of the regular season and the entirety of the ACC tournament with an injury.
Alvarez played doubles in his team's opening-round match against South Carolina State despite his injury, then continued to compete in both his singles and doubles matches against the Cardinal.
“[Alvarez] has recovered nicely,” Smith said. “He is feeling great, and I am really excited about his progression the past couple of weeks. He is in a good place right now, so he should be ready to go Thursday.”
The Trojans’ other five starting singles players are all ranked, compared to just two ranked starters for Duke after Alvarez. Courts two and three will feature ranked matchups between No. 41 Tahir and No. 25 Quiroz as well as No. 57 Hemmeler and No. 85 Johnson. At court four, Semenzato will face No. 45 Jonny Wang, who enters Thursday on a team-high 16-match win streak and is undefeated through 13 matches at the four spot. To round out the lineup, Chris Mengel will play No. 94 de Vroome on court five, and Pura will play No. 61 Crystal on the final court.
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Despite its formidable singles lineup, Southern California fell to Stanford April 10, but the two teams met again in the Pac-12 championship match. The second time around, Southern California emerged victorious from the matchup against the Cardinal—a feat Duke accomplished just a few days ago.
“USC and Stanford played twice in the last month and they split,” Smith said. “Both were [4-3] decisions, and I think our guys recognize that and realize that USC is an amazing team, but they are beatable. To play so well against Stanford is just going to give us a ton of confidence against USC.”
The winner of Thursday’s match will advance to the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday against the winner of the match between Baylor—the host university and No. 2 seed—and South Florida.
“The biggest key is to get all six guys firing on all cylinders at the same time,” Smith said. “It is sometimes tricky, and often times you have a couple of guys playing really well and a couple of guys who are a little bit off, but our biggest goal is to get every guy mentally and physically prepared to play their best.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.