The Blue Devils traveled to the ITA national team indoor championships for a 10th consecutive year hoping to show they could compete with the nation's top teams and build momentum entering the outdoor season.
Instead, they will return to Durham empty-handed after getting knocked back in three straight losses.
No. 10 Duke opened play at the 16-team event Friday by dropping a 4-1 decision to No. 6 Georgia at the Tennis and Fitness Center of Rocky Hill in New Haven, Conn. Although the Blue Devils nabbed the doubles point to take a lead, they got blown off the courts in singles, and that alarming trend continued as Duke was bounced 4-3 by No. 15 Texas A&M Saturday and swept 4-0 by No. 9 Vanderbilt Sunday in consolation matches to wrap up a disappointing weekend.
“We have to figure out a way to be better under pressure,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We have to build on [the tournament] and take what we can out of that to get ready for next week when we open up for ACC play. It was definitely disappointing to go 0-3, but at the same time it was a great opportunity to learn about our team and what we need to do in the meantime.”
One of the few bright spots for Duke (4-3) was Friday doubles against the Bulldogs. All three matches were relatively close, with Georgia's Mariana Gould and Marta Gonzalez pulling ahead of juniors Samantha Harris and Rebecca Smaller on Court 3 for a 6-4 win.
The Blue Devils answered at No. 2 doubles, with seniors Alyssa Smith and Chalena Scholl overcoming a 3-2 deficit by winning four of the last five games against Kennedy Shaffer and Caroline Brinson to direct all eyes to Court 1, where the match's first point would be decided.
Duke's 25th-ranked tandem of sophomore Kaitlyn McCarthy and freshman Meible Chi came up clutch, recovering from an early 4-2 hole to send the deciding match to a tiebreaker. Georgia's Ellen Perez and Eleni Christofi were not match for the Blue Devil pair in the tiebreaker, with Duke using a 7-2 spurt to take a 1-0 lead overall.
“[Doubles] was definitely something to be excited about going in, as we lost a few stray doubles points to Northwestern in back-to-back matches,” Ashworth said. “For us to win those points against teams that are top 10, top 12 in the country, it shows that we're doing the right things in practice.”
But from there, it was all Bulldogs (5-1).
Perez dominated Harris on Court 1 6-2, 6-2 to tie the score, then minutes later Gould finished off a resounding 6-1, 6-3 rout against Smaller to put Georgia on top.
The other four singles matches were closer, but the Bulldogs stayed calm down the stretch to pull out the two wins needed to advance.
On Court 4, McCarthy blew 4-1 leads in both sets in a disappointing 7-5, 6-4 loss to No. 34 Brinson. The Georgia competitor turned it on after falling behind in both frames, reeling off several games in a row twice to hand Duke a demoralizing loss.
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At No. 2 singles, No. 21 Chi fell to No. 18 Christofi 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 despite fighting back from a 3-0 hole to start the first set. Duke's standout freshman struggled to get anything going in the second set, then Christofi executed more efficiently down the stretch to seal the Blue Devils' first loss of the season.
When the match ended, 37th-ranked Scholl was closing in on a three-set win on Court 3 against No. 39 Schaffer and Smith had just gotten underway in the third set against Gonzalez at No. 5 singles.
“We talk a lot about win or lose the doubles point, we have to come out and play great singles,” Ashworth said. “We have to find a way to use the momentum of winning the doubles point a little bit better. We fought our way back and gave ourselves some really good opportunities, but against really good teams you can't get down like we got down. ”
After falling 4-1 to Georgia, Duke would have to settle for the consolation bracket for the third year in a row.
The Blue Devils were again in good position against the Aggies (6-3) after dominating in doubles on Courts 2 and 3, but straight-sets wins from Chi and McCarthy in singles were not enough to earn the team win.
Texas A&M stormed back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits, completing the comeback with three-set wins at No. 1 singles and No. 6 singles.
Blowing that lead could have stuck with Duke, which got dominated by Vanderbilt (4-3) in less than two hours. The Commodores quickly grabbed the doubles point at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles, then earned straight-sets wins on Courts 1, 2 and 6 to send the Blue Devils home winless.
Duke will have a bit more than a week off before kicking off ACC play Feb. 22 at N.C. State.
“The success of our program is built off of ACC play and setting a good tone,” Ashworth said. “Starting off with that N.C. State match will determine what we do in April and what we do in May.”