Throughout the fall season, the Blue Devils have struggled to get the results they wanted despite showing improvement on the court.
But things finally started to come together for Duke in its last few fall weekends.
The Blue Devils capped off their fall with a pair of titles this weekend as junior Nicolas Alvarez emerged with the consolation title in the ITA national indoor championships consolation title at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., and freshman Robert Levine won the Dick Vitale Intercollegiate Clay Court singles championship in Bradenton, Fla. With the wins, Duke has come away with at least one title in each of its last four tournaments.
"We really built a very good base early in the fall," Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. "I didn’t think our results came true in tournaments the first couple weeks, but the last three weeks we won four titles and we finally have those breakthroughs that are culmination of a lot of hardwork. It gives the team as a whole a lot of confidence, knowing that we can be a really good team."
Alvarez’s run got off to a slow start Thursday with a 6-4, 6-3 loss in his opening round match to Virginia’s Thai-Son Kwiatowski, the No. 2 seed in the event featuring the nation's top 32 indoor players. Alvarez was done in by a few rough patches of play in both sets as he lost three of the last four games in the first set and the last four games of the second set.
But the junior responded with a perfect mark during the final three days of the tournament.
The Lima, Peru, native found himself staring elimination in the face Friday after dropping the first set to Kentucky’s Ryotaro Matsumura in a tiebreak. But Alvarez turned his play around and won the final two sets 6-4, 6-1 to advance to the consolation quarterfinals. The momentum from Friday’s victories carried over to the junior’s two matches Saturday as he recorded a 6-2, 6-2 win against Texas’ Yuya Ito, followed by a 6-1, 6-1 sweep of No. 44 Strong Kirchheimer of Northwestern.
"He really found his rhythm and stuck to a really simple game plan we’ve been working on," Smith said. "It was extremely impressive, not just that he won the competition, but the scores the last four matches. He beat some really got players that play really aggressive."
Alvarez then turned his attention to a familiar foe in Stanford’s Tom Fawcett—who the junior defeated in straight sets in the 2015 NCAA tournament Round of 32—in the championship match. Alvarez was dominant once again with a 6-4, 6-1 victory against the No. 6 seed to become the first Blue Devil to win the event's consolation bracket, avenging his 6-2, 6-3 first-round loss to Fawcett from last year's NCAA championship.
After some early season struggles, including an early exit in the ITA All-American, Alvarez’s improved play towards the end of the fall season has his coaches excited about what lies ahead.
Down south, Duke’s trio of sophomore Catalin Mateas, senior TJ Pura and Levine competed in the team’s only clay court tournament of the year. After all three Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals of the singles draw Saturday, only Levine remained standing at the end of the day with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory against Florida’s Max Lipman.
After beating No. 4 seed Julius Tverijonas 6-2, 6-1 in the quarterfinals, Levine entered Sunday’s final looking to capture his first career championship.
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Levine opened his match against No. 2 seed Alexandru Gozun of South Florida with a first set tiebreak victory. But the freshman was inconsistent in the second set and fell 6-2 to set up a deciding third set. In the final set, Levine used a break to take control of the match and wrapped up the title with a 6-4 victory.
"There were probably a hundred people watching the finals today, a real great crowd," Smith said. "It was great to see Robert in that moment, as a freshman playing an upperclassmen, being able to come through. He just fought through some tough matchups and played extremely well and it’s a huge confidence-booster for him.”
Outside of their action on the courts, the Blue Devils had a chance to spend time with college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale.
After the team went to Vitale’s house for a dinner party Saturday, Levine had a chance to chat and take a picture with Vitale as the tournament champion. Vitale was also present throughout the tournament, which was held at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club.
"He’s high-energy, very passionate," Smith said. A lot of people don’t know, but he’s very passionate about tennis. Obviously, he loves Duke and he gave us a lot of love while we were there."
With their fall season behind them, the Blue Devils have an extended period of time off and will next take the court Jan. 7 for their Hills Family Hawaii Trip.