After last year’s regular season finished with an upset loss at the hands of Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils will be eyeing revenge Sunday. The only difference: four of Duke’s top five players will be fresh faces to the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech will travel to the Blue Devils’ Ambler Tennis Stadium at noon in the ACC opener for both teams. This will be the first conference matchup for five members of Duke’s 11-man roster. Freshman Catalin Mateas has stepped into the second singles role, and classmate Vincent Lin has competed on the third singles court in a majority of the Blue Devils’ matches so far this spring. Dealing with a young and inexperienced lineup, Duke fought its way through a difficult nonconference slate early in the spring to try to get Mateas, Lin and their classmates ready for conference play, another step up from junior tennis and some of their non-league matches.
“The freshmen obviously haven’t had any conference experience. I think the dual season so far has really helped prepare them and I think they’ve grown a lot in terms of the expectations,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Our nonconference schedule has been really tough, so they’ve played ACC-level teams and we’re all excited for a fresh start and to get things together.”
After a tough stretch that saw Duke (6-6) fall in consecutive matches to Michigan and Vanderbilt to cap off a streak of six losses in seven matches, the Blue Devils have rebounded by securing four consecutive victories. Those contests all came against lesser opponents—North Carolina A&T, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina and Furman are all unranked. These victories have still provided confidence to the team moving into conference play.
“I think we’re ready. After the Vanderbilt match, we certainly weren’t ready,” Smith said. “After these last two weeks of practice and double-headers, we have gotten into a better mindset and we have been working harder.”
After starting the season ranked No. 13 with a largely untested squad, the Blue Devils will again try to make the case for their re-entrance into the top 25 with a fifth straight victory and a quality win against an ACC opponent.
Georgia Tech (7-3) will not fall easily, though. The Yellow Jackets are also coming in on a hot streak of four consecutive victories, defeating Auburn, Georgia State, Mercer and Tennessee in preparation for the Blue Devils. No. 12 Christopher Eubanks—the Yellow Jackets’ premier singles player—has compiled an impressive season thus far, with a 20-5 overall record and a fast 7-1 start to the dual season.
Eubanks will likely compete on court one against Duke sophomore No. 15 Nicolas Alvarez in a rematch of a Nov. 12 meeting at the ITA National Championship. In the first round of that competition, Eubanks dispatched Alvarez in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2. After initially trading points that led to a 3-3 score, the Yellow Jacket took nine of the final 12 games en route to victory. Eubanks advanced all the way to the semifinals before falling at the hands of California’s Andre Goransson.
“Eubanks has really stepped up and established himself in the fall and now in the spring as well,” Smith said. “Most likely, that’s a matchup with Nico and he actually played him at Indoors, but I really like where Nico is right now. We just know they’re a really great team, so it’s a great opportunity to play on our home courts.”
A win Sunday would be the Blue Devils’ eighth victory to open their conference slate in the past nine seasons, after falling to Virginia Tech on the road a season ago. By beating the Yellow Jackets, Duke would also push its record above .500 for the first time since its opening match of the spring against Elon Jan. 15.
“Things are clicking,” Smith said. “We’re doing our best to prepare and put ourselves in a position where everyone is playing and fighting their best in every single position. If we do that, then the sky is the limit.”