After the Blue Devils were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, head coach Jamie Ashworth wanted Duke to focus on playing more aggressively to dictate points.
In one of the Blue Devils' biggest fall events, one Duke doubles team did just that to accomplish a feat it hadn't since 2012.
Junior Samantha Harris and sophomore Ellyse Hamlin won the doubles event at the ITA regional championship Monday afternoon in Chapel Hill, besting South Carolina's Caroline Dailey and Mia Horvit 6-3, 5-7, 1-0 (10-8) to qualify for next week's USTA/ITA national indoor championship in Flushing, N.Y. The No. 5 seed in the draw featuring the best teams in North Carolina and South Carolina, Harris and Hamlin upset the top-seeded duo of Martina Frantova and Tayla Stenta from N.C. State before ousting the sixth-seeded pair for the title to cap off the five-day event.
Duke's newest star, freshman Meible Chi, also continued her successful fall slate, advancing to the quarterfinals in singles and pushing top-seeded Sara Daavettila of North Carolina to three sets before falling. Chi was the only Blue Devil to make it to the quarterfinals as the No. 5 seed, as the freshman, Harris and Hamlin showed off some of the more aggressive play Duke has been looking for.
"We can do that easily when we're up 2-0, 3-0, but we have to keep doing that when there's pressure on us," Ashworth said Monday. "That's how we won today. We overcame some times where we didn't play great. In the tiebreaker, when we had to make shots, Sam hit two service winners and Ellyse hit a return winner. Those were three of the more aggressive points we played when the most pressure was on us. It's definitely something we have to keep working on and keep trying to do under pressure."
After dropping a tight second set in Monday's final—the first time Harris and Hamlin faced much adversity after cruising to the final—the Blue Devil duo fell behind 5-1 in the decisive 10-point tiebreak.
But Harris and Hamlin responded, reeling off three straight points to get back in the tiebreak before coming up clutch to break an 8-8 tie and secure the win. Although the tandem had not played doubles together before the event, they sealed their fifth straight win Monday and look poised to lead the way for Ashworth's team in doubles when full team events start in the spring.
"They definitely got better each match they played," Ashworth said. "The other girls can see their results and gain confidence from that as well and know that what we're doing is right and trust the process that we're going through."
Duke had three other doubles teams in action, with the second-seeded tandem of senior Chalena Scholl and sophomore Kaitlyn McCarthy reaching the quarterfinals before falling to Dailey and Horvit 8-7 (2). Chi teamed with senior Alyssa Smith in doubles and also bowed out in the quarterfinals, dropping an 8-6 decision to Frantova and Stenta.
The tandem of junior Rebecca Smaller and redshirt sophomore Christina Makarova failed to advance past the Round of 16.
Chi was the only Blue Devil to make it past the Round of 16 in singles, as Duke's highest seed in the singles draw cruised to the quarterfinals with three straight-set wins to set up a showdown with Daavettila in the quarterfinals.
As she has throughout her first 15 matches this fall, Chi started strong, winning a first-set tiebreak 7-3 to take an early lead. But the Weston, Fla., native could not sustain the momentum early in the second set, dropping a few close games early and eventually dropping the set 6-2. From there, Daavettila cruised to victory 6-0 in the final set.
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Despite the disappointing end to the tournament, Chi improved to 12-3 in singles this fall—all three losses have gone to three sets.
"When you win a tight first set like that, it's important to ride that and get off to a really good start in the second set. She lost a couple deuce games, and then Sara just gained some confidence back," Ashworth said. "When you have the opportunity to put someone away, we have to take advantage of that. If Meible could have won the first two games of that second set, the outcome would have been a little bit different."
Chi was the only Blue Devil seeded in the top 10 to avoid an upset and make the quarterfinals. The No. 6 seed and Duke's best returning singles player, Scholl won a three-set match against N.C. State's Adriana Reami before Kimmy Guerin notched a decisive 6-4, 6-3 upset to end Scholl's singles run.
McCarthy was the No. 8 seed and won her first match easily in straight sets before falling 7-6 (5), 7-5 to Clemson's Ayan Broomfield in a tight Round of 16 contest.
Harris and Hamlin also bowed out in the Round of 16 after winning their first matches, and Smith and Makarova fell in the opening round.
Despite some disappointing singles results, Ashworth was pleased with his team's progress overall, and has the Blue Devils who will not be at the national indoor event next week looking toward the Kitty Harrison Invitational in Chapel Hill to cap off the team's fall schedule.
"The biggest thing is we're getting better. We're better than we were three weeks ago. We're better than we were at the end of the year last year. And we keep getting better," Ashworth said. "We put ourselves in some really good positions. Even in the matches we lost, we gave ourselves some chances. When we play again in two weeks, we have to capitalize on those opportunities."