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Youthful Duke men's tennis squad kicks off 2016-17 with Duke James Bonk Invitational

<p>Senior TJ Pura is Duke's only senior this year and will look to get off to a strong start this season.&nbsp;</p>

Senior TJ Pura is Duke's only senior this year and will look to get off to a strong start this season. 

After failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament a season ago, the Blue Devils hope several returners can lead them back to the postseason

But they will have to get the season started without their very best player. 

Duke will kick off its regular season Friday with the Duke James Bonk Invitational in Cary, N.C., without the services of junior Nicolas Alvarez, who will be competing for Peru in the Davis Cup against Venezuela this weekend. Alvarez is coming off his second consecutive NCAA singles championship appearance and enters the season ranked No. 14 individually. 

The Blue Devils will take on a field featuring in-state rivals such as Elon and North Carolina, as well as non-conference opponents Florida and Auburn. The Gators and Tar Heels both made the NCAA tournament in 2015 and return strong squads once again. Round of 16 play begins Friday and the tournament finals will be held Sunday morning. 

“I’m just really excited to start the fall season officially with this first tournament that we’re hosting," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith told "Everyone has been working hard and getting better."

Even without Alvarez, the Blue Devils have the pieces to rebound this season. Duke lost only two seniors to graduation and adds three talented freshman to its roster.  

Sophomore Catalin Mateas is the Blue Devils' only other ranked singles player at No. 100 in the preseason polls. After playing in the No. 2 spot for most of last season, the Braintree, Mass., native will likely start off in the team's top singles spot and will also team up with classmate Vincent Lin in doubles. 

Lin will look to replicate his performance in this tournament last season when he came away with a consolation title in singles. The sophomore led Duke with 20 singles victories last year and will likely play in the No. 3 singles spot when Alvarez returns. The Blue Devils also bring back junior Andrew DeJoy, sophomores Ryan Dickerson and Jason Lapidus and lone senior TJ Pura. 

"We’ve done a lot of really good things these first two weeks as a team and guys are playing well and [I'm] just looking forward to watching them compete,” Smith said. 

One of the most touted pieces of the team's third-ranked recruiting class is Nick Stachowiak. After spending the first week of this month competing in the U.S. Open Junior Championships, the freshman will likely not be fazed playing his first college match in his hometown. 

The Cary, N.C., native will make his debut in doubles with fellow freshman Robert Levine, who is ranked as the No. 9 newcomer on the ITA's national freshman rankings. Levine was ranked as high as the No. 3 prospect in the nation and boasts a victory against 2015 SEC Player of the Year Gonzales Austin earlier this year at the Futures clay-court in Plantation, Fla. 

Seattle native Spencer Furman rounds out the Blue Devils' freshmen trio and will look to start strong in his first appearance in a Duke uniform. 

The James Bonk Invitational is named after Duke's former assistant tennis coach who passed away in 2013. Bonk was also a chemistry professor at the University. 

“Dr. Bonk is probably the most influential single person to the Duke tennis program,” Smith said. “He was involved with the program for 50 years as an assistant coach, volunteer assistant coach, academic adviser and mentor. We’re getting to the point where some of our freshmen don’t know Dr. Bonk and I want to make sure everyone knows exactly who he is, what he did for the program and what a special person he was.”

Although a long season lies ahead, the Blue Devils have stressed the importance of getting off to a good start, which could provide momentum for the rest of the year. With Alvarez returning in the near future, a solid performance from Duke's newcomers and returners would leave Smith optimistic about his team's depth going forward.