For such a young squad, going on the road to face consecutive ranked opponents can be daunting, especially without its top singles player.
With star Nicolas Alvarez still sidelined with a wrist injury, Duke opted to use one upperclassman—senior TJ Pura—on the road trip, giving some potential contributors valuable experience prior to ACC play.
But although the Blue Devils made promising strides this past weekend against No. 17 Illinois Friday evening and No. 9 Northwestern Sunday afternoon, Duke dropped both matches, falling just short of upsets both times. The Blue Devils lost 4-3 to the Fighting Illini after blowing a 3-1 lead, then fell to the Wildcats 4-2 in a match that was knotted at two.
“We did a lot of really good things,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We were a couple points away from winning both of those matches and as long as we take these losses the right way and keep working, it’s going to help us in the future.”
The Blue Devils (3-3) continued their strong doubles play Friday at Illinois (2-1), securing the doubles point for the fourth time in the young season, with the sophomore duo of Catalin Mateas and Vincent Lin winning 6-2 against Gui Gomes and Aron Hiltzik in the top doubles flight and the freshman duo of Nick Stachowiak and Spencer Furman emerging with a tough comeback 7-5 victory in No. 2 doubles.
With the win, Stachowiak and Furman improved to 10-0 and 5-0 in dual matches, and remained at that record Sunday against Northwestern (9-0), when their contest was stopped at 4-4 due to Wildcat victories on Court 1 and Court 3 against the Lin and Mateas group and freshman Robert Levine and sophomore Ryan Dickerson, giving Duke three pairings of only freshmen and sophomores.
“The freshmen have not been a surprise, but it’s been exciting to see how quickly they’ve adapted to dual matches,” Smith said.
Against the Fighting Illini, the Blue Devils did not fare as well in the singles matches, with Pura and Stachowiak being the only Duke players to win their respective matches. Duke's high point once again came at No. 4 singles, where Stachowiak landed an impressive victory against No. 85 Aleks Kovacevic 6-2 6-4 to push his individual winning streak to eight.
After Pura’s straight-set win pushed the Blue Devils’ lead to 3-1, a talented Illinois squad battled back, particularly in the top flights, where Lin, Mateas and Levine all dropped their respective contests. Levine’s was the deciding match of the contest, a hard-fought battle against No. 100 Gomes that went back and forth.
After Levine won the first two games to go up 2-0, Gomes rattled off six of the next seven games to win the first set 6-3. Then, Gomes was the one who got off to a hot start in the middle stanza, with Levine pushing back, as the Bedford, N.Y., native rallied back from 4-2 and 5-3 deficits to emerge with the middle set in a tiebreaker. But then after Levine fed off his second set momentum to a fast start in the final one, Gomes pushed through to seal the victory for Illinois.
“I was really happy about how [Levine] was mentally and it was actually a really good experience for him to be in that deciding match in a really hostile environment,” Smith said. “He battled back from a set and a break down, a split-set, and gave himself a chance to win in the third and it just didn’t work out.”
Against Northwestern, Duke got off to the opposite start as it lost the doubles points 6-3 and 6-2, with the duos of Lin and Mateas and Levine and Dickerson losing, respectively.
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But the Blue Devils battled back in the lower singles flights, with Furman and Stachowiak rattling off consecutive wins to knot the contest at two. Then the home team hit its stride, with 26th-ranked Strong Kirchheimer overwhelming Lin before Sam Shropshire and Konrad Zieba beat Mateas and Levine in close contests.
Duke has a week to regroup after a tough weekend before hosting Tennessee and N.C. Central Sunday.
“We’ve gotten that stinging feeling of what it’s like to lose very tough matches, and it’s not a good feeling,” Smith said. “We want to get that feeling on the flip side which is one of the best feelings ever, winning a really tight dual match.”