RALEIGH—Three weeks to the day after Duke swept Virginia on the Cavaliers' home courts, a rain-delayed and relocated rematch brought a much different outcome.
Fifth-seeded Virginia rolled to a 4-2 win against the fourth-seeded Blue Devils in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday at N.C. State's J.W. Isenhour Tennis Facility. Duke earned a double-bye into the quarterfinals but was sent home on its first day of postseason action for the second straight year after falling to Georgia Tech in 2015.
First serve was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. at Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C., but was moved up to noon in hopes of beating out inclement weather. But rain arrived just two games into doubles action, prompting a delay and—about five minutes later—a change in venue.
The Blue Devils and Cavaliers made the trek to the indoor courts in Raleigh, resuming play at 2:30 p.m. at the Wolfpack's facility, which had just four courts available. After the long layoff, the No. 8 Blue Devils could never get going, falling behind 3-0 early. Duke mounted a comeback with a pair of third-set victories, but could not crawl all the way back, losing when redshirt freshman Christina Makarova fell to Virginia’s Cassie Mercer in straight sets at the No. 6 singles spot.
“I don’t think the change of venue affected us,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I think Virginia has on paper probably the best [players on courts] one and two in the country. And if you don’t win the doubles in this setup, potentially you could be down 3-0. They thrive on four courts because they know mentally that they can put a team in a big hole.”
The No. 16 Cavaliers (16-9) took control of the match early when they clinched the doubles point and then the first two singles matches. Duke blanked Virginia in their previous meeting in Charlottesville, so the doubles point was the first point Ashworth's squad had conceded to the Cavaliers in two meetings this season.
With senior Beatrice Capra out of the lineup for a fourth straight match, Duke (18-6) again had to shuffle its doubles lineup. Sophomore Samantha Harris and freshman Kaitlyn McCarthy moved from court two to court one, the usual all-junior court three team of Chalena Scholl and Alyssa Smith moved up a slot as well and Jessica Ho joined fellow freshman Ellyse Hamlin on court three.
Hamlin and Ho lost the first two games of their match against Virginia’s Julia Elbaba and Erica Susi and could never regain their footing. Virginia won that match 6-2, but tighter affairs played out on courts one and two. Scholl and Smith led Mercer and Stephanie Nauta 5-3 with a chance to close things out, but dropped three straight games. They held serve to force a tiebreak, but they lost that 2-7 as the Cavaliers clinched the doubles point.
Harris and McCarthy traded breaks with Virginia’s No. 16 team of Danielle Collins and Meghan Kelley before their match was abandoned. The Blue Devils failed to convert on their opportunity to serve for the match at 5-4 and took a seat on the bench after breaking to go up 6-5, but before the next Duke service game, the court two match finished.
No. 55 Scholl and No. 52 McCarthy faced top-flight competition on the top two courts and were simply overmatched. Scholl lost 2-6, 1-6 to No. 2 Collins and McCarthy dropped the first seven games of her match before finally landing a break against No. 16 Elbaba. The freshman managed just one more game after that as Elbaba cruised to a 6-0, 6-2 win.
With the Cavaliers one point away from moving on to the semifinals, prospects looked bleak for the Blue Devils with Harris and Hamlin battling on the outer courts and Ho and Makarova getting ready to begin.
“I told them, 'You have to believe in yourself and trust yourself and also believe in your teammates and trust your teammates. They’re putting in the same effort that you are,'” Ashworth said. “When we were down 3-0, Sam could have easily just said, 'It’s not worth it,' or Ellyse could have, and they both did everything they could to give us a chance, which is what we were fighting for.”
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On court three, Harris lost the first two games of her match against No. 85 Nauta, but won the next three to get back on serve. Nauta led 6-5 and served for the first set, but the Melbourne, Australia, native got the break and won the tiebreaker 7-5 to claim the set, 7-6. Nauta won a lopsided second set 6-1, but Harris fought back to win the final set 6-3, giving Duke its first point of the afternoon.
Hamlin lost her first set 3-6 to Kelley but quickly reversed her fortunes, winning the second set 6-2 and claiming the first three games of the third. Kelley parried by winning three straight games of her own, and then the set went back-and-forth, with the winner in seven of 10 games breaking serve. Hamlin went up 5-4 with a break and seized her chance to close things out, holding serve for just the second time in the set to bring Duke within 3-2.
“There was definitely a momentum swing,” Ashworth said. “I’m proud of the way we competed. I’m proud of the way we fought back and gave ourselves an opportunity. It took us three-and-a-half hours to get a point with Sam, and Ellyse played some of the best tennis she’s played all year in that second set [and] beginning of the third set.”
But the Blue Devil miracle comeback bid was not to be. Mercer overpowered Makarova in their court six match and won 6-2, 6-1, clinching the match for Virginia. Ho won her first set over Susi on court five 6-2, but she trailed 2-5 in the second before the match was called.
"You never know just mentally and emotionally if you’re going on the court not down 3-0, if that makes a difference for Christina, how she approaches the match,” Ashworth said.
With the win, the Cavaliers advance to play top-seeded North Carolina Saturday morning with a spot in the ACC tournament final on the line. Virginia is seeking its third straight ACC tournament championship.
Although out of contention for a conference crown, Duke should receive an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament—which begins May 13—and could be in line to host regional action at Ambler Tennis Stadium that weekend in hopes of advancing to the championship round in Tulsa, Okla., May 19.
“We have three weeks. It’s obviously the longest break we have all year, but it’s a break we have to take advantage of from a conditioning standpoint, from a competitive standpoint,” Ashworth said. “We have to recover from that but then begin to build up and get ourselves in a position to accomplish some goals that are still in front of us.”