With their best player still injured, the young Blue Devils knew they faced a daunting task when they traveled to take on No. 15 Kentucky.
And despite a strong start, the Wildcats had too much talent for a short-handed Duke team to overcome.
After winning two of three doubles matches to take a 1-0 lead, the No. 25 Blue Devils dropped four straight singles matches on their way to a 5-2 loss Friday evening at the Boone Tennis Center in Lexington, Ky. Freshman Nick Stachowiak helped Duke capture the doubles point and was the only Blue Devil to win his singles match, but Kentucky's two top-25 singles players came out strong to make sure the Wildcats took advantage of Alvarez's absence.
"We did some good things tonight and we pushed a very strong team on their home courts," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith.
The Blue Devils' star player missed his second consecutive match with an undisclosed injury, but Smith said after the match that Alvarez is close to returning.
Even with the Lima, Peru, native out, Duke got off to a strong start in doubles. Sophomores Vincent Lin and Catalin Mateas knocked off Will Bushamuka and Beck Pennington 6-4 in No. 1 doubles, rattling off two straight games to break a 4-4 tie.
Although Jason Lapidus and TJ Pura had fallen 6-2 on Court 3, the Blue Devils' freshman tandem of Stachowiak and Spencer Furman continued its hot start to the season. They rolled to a convincing 6-3 win after jumping out to a 4-0 lead against Nils Ellefsen and Enzo Wallart to improve to 7-0 on the year and clinch the doubles point.
After faltering in doubles Monday against Elon, Duke looked much more comfortable Friday evening.
“I was very impressed with how we came out in doubles.” Smith said. “[We] made some big improvements in that area from our last match.”
But the Wildcats' real strength lies in singles, and they showed that from the outset of individual competition.
Pennington quickly evened the team score with a 6-4, 6-2 rout of Blue Devil freshman Robert Levine in No. 3 singles before Kentucky's top-25 players put the home team firmly in control.
Seventeenth-ranked Ryotaro Matsumura rolled on Court 2, taking out Lin 6-3, 6-2 to give the Wildcats the lead for good.
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No. 23 Bushamuka then cruised to a 6-3, 6-4 win against Mateas in No. 1 singles, with Mateas unable to muster a second-set win after taking an early 2-0 lead.
Duke turned to Furman on Court 4 to stay alive, and the freshman fought hard despite falling behind a set and a break. The Seattle native rallied to force a third set against Ellefsen before falling 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, but Smith said he was pleased with Furman's effort.
“The guys battled really hard in singles and we had our chances.” Smith said.
The loss at No. 4 singles meant that Kentucky clinched the match with a 4-1 lead with two matches to play, but the No. 5 and 6 singles matches were played anyway.
Stachowiak took full advantage of the opportunity, crushing Trey Yates 6-2, 6-2 at No. 5 singles. The freshman has now won seven out of his last eight singles matches and has been one of the standouts of the young season thus far.
“I was especially pleased with Nick.” Smith said. “He played at an extremely high level from start to finish and continued his stellar start to the spring.”
No. 6 singles was a hotly-contested three-set battle that ended with Pura falling in a super tiebreaker to Enzo Wallert 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 1-0 (10-6). The third set was a first-to-10 tiebreaker since the overall match had already been decided.
Duke will have a week off to refocus before Michigan State comes to Durham next Friday for their next match.
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.