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From homeschool to the hardcourt: Meible Chi looks like the next Duke women's tennis star

<p>Freshman Meible Chi and the Blue Devils knocked off  No. 16 N.C. State on the road Wednesday afternoon.</p>

Freshman Meible Chi and the Blue Devils knocked off No. 16 N.C. State on the road Wednesday afternoon.

Scanning the Blue Devil roster, one might have expected senior Chalena Scholl or sophomore Kaitlyn McCarthy to make a surprising run to the semifinals of the ITA indoor national singles championships last fall.

Instead, it was another former top-10 recruit who stole the show for Duke—freshman Meible Chi.

Despite never playing in a true team setting before joining the Blue Devils, Chi’s game has flourished in her first year at Duke. After being homeschooled and getting a wealth of experience competing nationally, Chi has risen rapidly up the national rankings and now finds herself as the 21st-best college player in the country and highest-ranked player for the No. 15 Blue Devils.

“I was homeschooled in high school because I felt that high school would take up too much time,” Chi said. “I was able to compete at more national and international tournaments. Although I didn’t play on high school tennis teams, I’ve just been on a different path.”

Although Chi was new to the team, she wasted little time making her mark for Duke.

The Weston, Fla., native captured her first individual title in her draw at the season-opening James Bonk Invitational last fall, upending players from No. 1 Florida and No. 2 North Carolina. Chi was dominant, winning all three of her matches in straight sets and only losing more than two games in a set once during the weekend.

After a few more solid tournaments, Chi made her biggest statement yet by qualifying for the ITA indoor national singles championships along with 31 of the nation’s top players. She took down No. 64 Alex Najarian in the opening round before upsetting No. 7 Luisa Stefani in two dramatic sets decided by tiebreakers, then punched her ticket to the semifinals by dominating 19th-ranked Josie Kuhlman 6-2, 6-2.

Despite a lopsided loss to Ohio State’s Francesca Di Lorenzo—the No. 1 player in the nation—Chi had flashed her potential with another mature fall performance.

“She’s a great competitor—a great team person,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “She’s not afraid to be a leader. She’s not going to be the most vocal leader, but her work ethic stands out. The other girls see her out there early in the mornings before we start practice working, and she has been great for our team in that sense…. It’s been a great semester and a half for her.”

But freshmen stars tend to hit a wall in the spring semester with the intensity of team dual matches, and Chi is now facing adversity after a tough start to the spring.

After rising as high as No. 14 in the rankings, Chi failed to win a single match in the Freeman Memorial championships to open the spring, suffering straight-sets losses to top-40 competitors Carol Zi Yang and Caroline Doyle.

Although she has bounced back recently with dual-match wins against Elon, William & Mary and Northwestern, Chi suffered more setbacks against top opponents. The rookie fell 6-4 in the third set to No. 18 Eleni Christofi of Georgia at the ITA team national indoor championships and did not win a single game in the first set of a routine win for fourth-ranked Astra Sharma.

“We talked to her and said, ‘Don’t rest on what you’ve done on the fall,’” Ashworth said. “It was her first time going home after a semester of college, and she realized she has to work as hard when she’s at home as when she’s here…. It’s easy to go home on those breaks and relax, but she has matured enough to know she has to go home and keep working harder.”

Chi had experience in singles before coming to Durham, but doubles in a team setting has been a whole new world.

In the fall, Chi and Ellyse Hamlin struggled at their first few tournaments before Chi and senior Alyssa Smith showed some potential before going 0-3 in doubles at the Freeman Memorial championships.

But now Chi is playing alongside another former top-10 recruit and nationally-ranked singles player in McCarthy, and the tandem’s recent 6-0 upset win against Northwestern’s 15th-ranked duo of Maddie Lipp and Alex Chatt now has them ranked 25th nationally heading into the outdoor season.

“Down the road, she’s going to be a great leader,” Ashworth said. “She has improved on the doubles court exponentially. She has put in the time and the effort and she’s starting to see the results of that.”

With the Blue Devils just starting ACC competition, perhaps Chi’s biggest area of growth will be on display—her ability to feed off her teammates. In intense dual-match settings, competitors often have to lean on one another, and Duke’s latest freshman star is learning just how important that can be.

“I got to understand what it means to have five other people right next to you as you’re competing,” Chi said. “It’s a very different kind of tennis…. Before, my energy and intensity level was kind of an issue—it would dip. But now that I have people next to me, I know that I will have to keep my positivity up. I fed off of them and they fed off of me, and that’s just helped me keep my energy up and finish it until the end of the match.”