When Nick Stachowiak, Robert Levine and Spencer Furman committed to play tennis in Durham as top-10 recruits, they were not sure what their roles would be early in their careers.
Head coach Ramsey Smith returned four key pieces from last year’s team, and the Blue Devils also had some depth waiting in the wings.
But early-season adversity has forced the three players into prominent roles early on, meaning that fans can now get a good look at the program’s future earlier than expected. Stachowiak, Furman and Levine have become fixtures for Duke in singles and doubles with 14th-ranked junior Nicolas Alvarez out with a wrist injury and sophomore Vincent Lin’s sudden departure from the program Feb. 14.
And being thrown into the fire right away has strengthened the group’s bond. Stachowiak and Levine are roommates and Furman lives next door, so the three are almost always in close proximity. The freshmen also share several classes.
“I didn’t realize how [much of a] family we would be,” Furman said. “We do everything together.”
Alvarez’s absence has tested the Blue Devils, who started the year in the top 25 but have suffered early-season losses at then-No. 15 Kentucky, then-No. 17 Illinois and then-No. 9 Northwestern.
But one positive is that Duke’s young pieces have been forced to improve right away and now have plenty of experience against top competition heading into the outdoor season next week.
“Obviously, I’d rather have [Nico] in there,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “But there are some positives because it gives guys some opportunities, everyone is playing at a higher spot and it’s only going to make us stronger going towards the tail end of the season.”
Stachowiak and Furman especially have combined to form a potent doubles duo. The two were randomly paired together for a match during the team’s trip to Hawaii to start 2017 and instantly hit it off. The freshmen are undefeated this season at No. 2 doubles, including victories against teams from Kentucky and Northwestern.
“I think we have great chemistry out there,” Furman said. “I know what he’s going to do, and he says he knows what I’m going to do. I think we definitely return well together. The first ball off the serve is very consistent and we put them in tough spots because of that.”
Although all three freshmen have had bright moments so far, Stachowiak has been the Blue Devils’ star so far this year.
The rookie is undefeated in 2017, ripping off 11 straight wins and steadily moving up the lineup from No. 5 singles to Court 4, and even recently against Tennessee and N.C. Central, the top two singles courts. Perhaps even more impressive is that the Cary, N.C., native has only dropped one set during that streak, climbing into the national singles rankings at the No. 116 spot two weeks ago as the team prepares to move outdoors.
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“I’m just taking it one match at a time—focusing on the one ahead.” Stachowiak said. “I’m just going out there focused on myself and playing my game.”
Levine came to Duke after attending online high school so he could travel the country for tennis tournaments. Before coming to Durham, he qualified for several professional tournaments and also defeated Gonzales Austin, the 2015 SEC Player of the Year, in a qualifying tournament. The Bedford, N.Y., native has spent most of the season playing at the No. 3 singles position and has more than held his own, winning several matches and taking highly-ranked opponents to three sets multiple times.
Furman also enjoyed a distinguished pre-collegiate career, including one shining moment when he toppled the then-No. 912 professional player in the world in straight sets. The Seattle native has anchored the No. 5 singles spot recently for the Blue Devils and provided a steady presence, only losing to opponents from Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi and winning a key match against Northwestern.
“I think my serve has really helped me,” Furman said. “Especially in the second sets of matches, I feel like I’ve been serving great.”
The rapid development of the freshmen means that the future of Duke men’s tennis is coming faster than anyone could have predicted. The three Blue Devils were highly-regarded recruits, combining to form a class that ranked third in the country, but the college game often requires time to adjust due to the faster speed of play and different match format.
With senior TJ Pura and sophomore Catalin Mateas also looking for more consistency heading into the spring, Duke still has a chance to turn heads even with its early-season obstacles—especially if Alvarez returns any time soon.
“You never know how they’re going to adjust to college and dual matches,” Smith said of the freshmen. “They came in and all three of them worked so incredibly hard and they’re a lot more mature than their years. They’re really pushing the upperclassmen to be better…. I couldn’t be happier with all three of them.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.