Trailing 30-40 in his own serve game with the match tied 4-4, freshman Catalin Mateas had a chance to even the score and move on to jump out to a lead in the third set against Georgia Tech junior Carlos Benito. Mateas served the ball across and tried to top his opponent with a quick net return. But Benito, no stranger to the pressures of a three-set match, somehow lifted the ball before it hit the ground and curved it just enough to fly past Mateas’ racket before landing within the right sideline.
Down as many as two games in the third frame, Benito completed his comeback in the next game with a powerful baseline hit that killed Mateas’ chances of winning and sealed a hard-fought victory for the Yellow Jackets.
Duke fell to Georgia Tech in a 4-3 thriller to open the ACC season Sunday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium. After the Blue Devils stalled the Yellow Jackets' momentum following doubles play, Duke battled hard in singles and arrived at the doorstep of victory with a 3-1 lead. But the Yellow Jackets turned out to have more fuel in their tank and erased the deficit with two three-frame wins.
“I know everyone is a bit upset, obviously,” Mateas said. “But what [Duke head coach Ramsey Smith] basically told us is that was a step forward for all of us. I think all of us competed really well, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. At the start of the day, we said we were going to come out [and] give our best, win or lose. I think every single one of us did that.”
The Blue Devils (6-7, 0-1 in the ACC) struggled with doubles early on in the spring, but had had won four of their last five doubles points coming into Sunday. But Georgia Tech (8-4, 1-1) had other ideas. On court one, the duo of sophomore captain Nicolas Alvarez and freshman Vincent Lin came under heavy fire from Benito and sophomore Christopher Eubanks. The Yellow Jackets’ fast serves and aggressive net play quickly established a 4-1 lead. Alvarez and Lin could not keep pace with the opponents’ speed and suffered from errors and ill-prepared returns throughout the set, dropping the match 3-6 to give Georgia Tech an upper hand for the doubles point.
On court three, Mateas and freshman Ryan Dickerson cruised through the first three games with a 3-0 lead against their Yellow Jacket counterparts. But after a break, the freshman tandem lost its touch suddenly and dropped six games in a row to Georgia Tech freshman Andrew Li and senior Nathan Rakitt, putting the Yellow Jackets up by one on the scoreboard.
On court two, senior Daniel McCall and freshman Jason Lapidus went neck-and-neck against Casey Kay and Michael Kay before the match was abandoned at 4-5 in Georgia Tech’s favor.
“Georgia Tech is a very good team, very good in doubles,” Smith said. “It was very strange we got up 3-0 at [court] three, playing great, [after] double break, then lost six games in a row. We really lost momentum there…. We gave ourselves a shot, but just a little tentative at times in doubles.”
Not happy with the doubles result, the Blue Devils came out aggressively in singles. On court three, Lin led the way with two 6-2 wins to even the score at 1-1. This gave a huge boost to the rest of Duke players on the court. Junior captain T.J. Pura soon dispatched Georgia Tech junior Cole Fiegel in a 6-1, 6-3 decision on court four, and McCall topped Michael Kay 6-4, 7-5 on court six. Together they extended Duke’s lead to 3-1, just one match shy from claiming the final victory.
But Georgia Tech never let the Blue Devils get that one point.
On court one, No. 15 Alvarez took on No. 12 Eubanks in a clash between two of the best players in the nation. Coming out from the doubles loss, the Lima, Peru, native quickly grabbed a 3-1 lead and claimed the first set, 6-4. But Eubanks bounced back in the second set, smashing Alvarez’s top-spin serves with powerful forehand returns and launched shot after shot beyond the sophomore’s reach. Eubanks took the second set with ease, 6-3.
In the third set, the Georgia Tech sophomore continued to use the wide space of the court and capitalize on Alvarez’s late reaction to his return. The Duke captain kept the deficit to just one game, relying on Eubanks’ inconsistent serving and backhand return, but could not stop the Yellow Jacket from taking the final set, 6-4, to cut the Blue Devil lead to 3-2.
Dickerson dropped his first set to Daniel Yun 3-6, but dragged his opponent into a tiebreaker in the second set before falling 5-7. With the score tied at 3-3, Mateas and Benito both had a chance to win the day for their team, and Benito came out on top, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Sunday's loss marked the second consecutive year in which Duke could not deliver a victory in its conference opener after dropping a 6-1 decision to Virginia Tech last spring.
“Overall we did a great job rebounding from the doubles point,” Smith said. “We won five first sets and I thought we showed a lot of heart from start to finish. Credit to Georgia Tech for hanging in there and battling back, pulling out a couple three-setters. But I told the guys obviously it hurts to lose, but I was really proud of what I saw out there. As long as we keep our heads up and keep working, I think we are going to have our moments.”
The Blue Devils will travel to Miami Friday to continue their ACC campaign.
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