The Blue Devils had been skating by without two of their most talented players, winning five straight matches against unranked competition coming into Tuesday's bout.
But then Duke got a wake-up call in the Tobacco Road rivalry, a reminder of where the team can improve in the coming weeks in a cutthroat ACC.
The Blue Devils suffered a 6-1 setback at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Stadium against No. 5 North Carolina, quickly dropping the doubles point and blowing early leads in four singles matches. Duke's lineup in Chapel Hill looked drastically different than many expected entering the season, with sophomore Vincent Lin leaving the team in mid-February, junior star Nicolas Alvarez—the No. 17 player in the nation—out with a wrist injury and freshman Robert Levine having missed the team's most recent match due to illness.
That lack of continuity showed against a national title contender, as the Tar Heels never let Duke got comfortable in the home team's ACC opener, using big serves and powerful ground strokes to quickly end the match's biggest points.
“Overall, I thought we played pretty well and UNC was just a little bit better than us today,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “But I thought we had a great attitude and fought really hard to do well. It came down to a couple points here and there.”
After being named ACC Player of the Week following his performance Saturday at Virginia Tech, rookie Nick Stachowiak hoped to win his 14th straight doubles match with classmate Spencer Furman and keep Duke's doubles momentum going. But the duo's matchup on Court 1 went unfinished as their teammates struggled to find footing early on.
North Carolina's tandem of William Blumberg and Blaine Boyden cruised past Duke's Jason Lapidus and Ryan Dickerson 6-2 at No. 2 doubles, and sophomore Catlin Mateas and senior TJ Pura dropped their match to Ronnie Schneider and Anu Kodali 6-3 to quickly give the Tar Heels (12-1, 1-0 in the ACC) a 1-0 lead.
Stachowiak and Furman were tied with Jack Murray and Simon Soendergaard at 4-4 when the doubles point was decided.
“We played well at 1 and we were up a break [early] at 1,” Smith said. “We lost a couple of early deuce points at 2 and 3.... They played three different teams so they just had some different matchups than we were expecting.”
Despite the early deficit, the Blue Devils (8-4, 1-1) responded well early in singles, earning breaks in four of the six matches.
Unfortunately for Duke, it could not keep that early momentum going, winning the opening frame on just one of the singles courts.
Back on Court 2 after his stint at No. 1 singles, Stachowiak saw his 14-match winning streak come to an end when the 94th-ranked competitor in the nation fell 6-4, 6-3 to No. 61 Blumberg.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“Blumberg played great tennis, especially at the beginning,” Smith said. “Nick was always playing from behind, which is unusual for him. He had a couple of chances in both sets to get back even and get a little bit of momentum, but Blumberg was aggressive and played an extremely clean match.”
Despite close battles in many of the singles matches, North Carolina stretched the lead to 3-0 when Arturo Schmidt pulled away from Lapidus 7-5, 6-0 at No. 6 singles. Lapidus has rarely played singles this season, and could not sustain some solid early play.
Smith's team finally got on the board when Pura knocked off Jack Murray on Court 4 with an emphatic 6-3, 6-3 performance—one of the best wins of the senior's career. The two met in October at the ITA Carolina Regional, where Murray dominated Pura 6-2, 6-1.
But Pura turned the tables Tuesday afternoon for one of Duke's few highlights.
“It showed how much he’s improved this senior year,” Smith said. “He brought a lot of energy and fire like he always does.”
Shortly after the Blue Devils earned their only point of the day, Schneider—No. 19 in the nation and widely regarded as one of the nation's top players since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2013—knocked off Mateas 6-3, 6-4 on Court 1 to seal North Carolina's victory.
The two remaining matches then went to super tiebreakers in place of deciding third sets. Duke came out on the wrong end of those as well, with Furman falling 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 1-0 (10-8) to Soendergaard at No. 3 singles and Dickerson faltering in the tiebreaker for another close 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 1-0 (10-2) defeat against Boyden.
“We lost the last two matches in super tiebreakers, which makes that 6-1 score look a little more dominant than it was,” Smith said. “The six guys we have out there fought until the very end, and we just came up a little short."
The Blue Devils' schedule will not get any easier—Duke hosts No. 2 Wake Forest Sunday at 1 p.m. before taking on 13th-ranked UCLA on the road next week.
“We challenged them to stay positive, maintain belief and focus on worrying about one match at a time,” Smith said. “We have some great opportunities coming up, and I’m proud of how the guys have handled things. They’re out their giving it their best and competing hard together—it’s what you want to see as a coach.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.