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Duke men's tennis standout Nicolas Alvarez eyes deep run at NCAA singles championship

<p>Nicolas Alvarez is hoping to improve on his 2015 round of 32 finish at the NCAA championship this week.</p>

Nicolas Alvarez is hoping to improve on his 2015 round of 32 finish at the NCAA championship this week.

Last season, Nicolas Alvarez had a lot to focus on after the ACC championship, with the NCAA team competition and both the singles and doubles championships still to come.

This year, the sophomore has had a month to focus on his own game, which could pay dividends when the Lima, Peru, native concludes his season this week.

Alvarez, the No. 22 player in the country, will open play at the NCAA singles championship Wednesday at the Michael Case Tennis Center in Tulsa, Okla. With the Blue Devils not advancing to the team championship and no other singles players or any doubles tandems qualifying, Alvarez has been able to practice individually since April 21.

And after losing in the round of 32 in three sets as a freshman, the 6-foot-1 sophomore hopes to make a longer run this season.

"I know it's a tournament that requires focus for every single point," Alvarez said. "You're playing the best players in college and you cannot afford to lose focus for some games, because then the season is over."

In addition to spending a lot of time with Duke head coach Ramsey Smith and associate head coach Jonathan Stokke, Alvarez said he took a trip to Miami to train with other former college players ahead of the singles championship.

The All-American carries plenty of momentum into the championship, having won six of his last seven matches that went to completion after a slow start in the spring. Alvarez started the spring semester with a 3-5 record, which the first-team All-ACC performer attributed to his mentality on the court. 

"Starting the semester, I was working hard but my main problem was my confidence," Alvarez said. "I started off on a wrong foot and that kind of led me for the first couple of months, then I started changing things around, lost a couple of close matches against good players and it just took a couple of weeks to get back my confidence. A lot of it is just mental."

Both Smith and Alvarez said his serve and return have been priorities in practice leading up to the final event of the season, as well as playing aggressively early in rallies. Smith added that Alvarez's movement will be critical when he opens the tournament against No. 15 Tom Fawcett of Stanford at 10 a.m. Wednesday because of how cleanly Alvarez hits the ball when he is on balance.

"The most important thing is that he's healthy," Smith said. "At the end of last year, he wasn't very healthy. He's healthy, fresh and eager, and really excited to play."

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.