Down in a pivotal match and tied in another, it looked like Duke was going to miss the national indoor championships for the first time in nine years.
Meible Chi and Rebecca Smaller had other ideas.
Chi overcame a 5-2 deficit in a third set tiebreaker after a late three-set win by Smaller to help the No. 10 Blue Devils come back and defeat No. 25 Northwestern 4-3 in a four-hour, marathon match at Sheffield Tennis Center Sunday.
With the victory—which came a day after Duke advanced past William & Mary 4-0—the Blue Devils won the ITA Kickoff Weekend title and will advance to the ITA national team indoor championships in two weeks.
“It’s a great win. It’s a great confidence-builder,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We’re not the most talented team, but we have enough talent if we play with heart and passion and if we don’t give up.”
Down 3-2 in the team score after losing the doubles point and splitting the first four singles matches, the Blue Devils (3-0) needed victories from Chi and Smaller to complete the comeback.
Both players were initially on their way to fulfilling that need when they grabbed early one-set leads in their respective matches. But once the freshman Chi—ranked 14th nationally—won her initial set against Maddie Lipp 7-6 (13-11) at No. 2 singles, Lipp fought back to take the next frame and force a decisive third set.
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Smaller also lost her momentum on Court 6 when her opponent, Nina Van Oost, won the second set 6-4. But after going back and forth with Van Oost in the third set, Smaller earned a late break before pulling away to take the match 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 and keep Duke’s hopes alive.
As Smaller was battling, Ashworth said she and Chi were feeding off each other by talking to one another in between changeovers and points.
Chi had gone down 5-2 in her final set but won four straight games to go up 6-5 by playing more aggressively. After Lipp then won the next game, the Northwestern redshirt junior put the pressure back on Chi by racing out to a 5-2 lead in the ensuing tiebreaker. But as she did throughout the day, Chi remained calm and won six of the next seven points to take the match 7-6 (13-11), 3-6, 7-6 (8-6) and seal the dramatic win for her team.
“’Just one point at a time was the way I was thinking,” Chi said. “I saw Rebecca was still hanging in there and I knew that if I’m going to lose, I’m going to play my game…. I put more emphasis on my footwork and racquet-head speed.”
The Blue Devils' furious comeback came after a series of missed opportunities in doubles.
Duke’s No. 2 tandem of seniors Alyssa Smith and Chalena Scholl built an early 4-3 lead against the No. 24 duo of Erin Larner and Lee Or before having a chance to serve for the match at 5-3. But Smith and Scholl suddenly went cold as Larner and Or won the next four games to take the match 7-5.
On Court 3, Samantha Harris and Smaller also looked poised to secure a doubles win, jumping out to a 5-2 lead against the No. 23 tandem of Rheeya Doshi and Brooke Rischbieth. Doshi and Rischbieth stormed back, however, winning the next four games to take a 6-5 lead. Although Harris and Smaller extended the match by winning the next game, the visitors took the ensuing tiebreaker 7-3 to clinch the doubles point for Northwestern.
Chi and Kaitlyn McCarthy’s back-and-forth match against Alex Chatt and Lipp also went down to a tiebreaker, but the match was called once the Wildcats (4-1) clinched the doubles point.
“Northwestern has great doubles and it was disappointing to lose,” Ashworth said. “We were serving for the match on every court. We let those opportunities slip away.”
Duke’s fight did not get any easier in singles. The Blue Devils gained some momentum when the 34th-ranked Scholl cruised past Doshi 6-2, 6-1 at No. 3 singles before No. 76 McCarthy added another point with a 6-1, 6-2 win against Or on Court 4.
But the Wildcats evened the match when Chatt edged past Smith 6-4, 7-5 at No. 5 singles. Northwestern then took a 3-2 lead with Larner’s 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 victory against Harris on Court 1, setting up Chi's and Smaller’s dramatic finishes.
Duke will now have a week off before hosting Northwestern again Feb. 5 as part of a regular season nonconference match.
“We learned a lot from this as a team,” Ashworth said. “Luckily [this is] our next match next week…. Hopefully we’ll get better.”