Following a much-needed win against Florida State last weekend after welcoming back three players, Duke looks ready to finish ACC play strong.
And its first win against a ranked team this season could go a long way toward boosting the team's NCAA tournament body of work.
The Blue Devils will hit this road this weekend for a Friday against No. 17 Georgia Tech at the Ken Byers Tennis Center at 5 p.m. before taking on Clemson Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Hoke Sloan Tennis Center in Clemson, S.C.
Playing on the road has been difficult for a young and banged up Duke team, as the Blue Devils are 1-6 away from home all season and have been blown out several times, winning just one total team point across their matches with then-No. 5 North Carolina and then-No. 2 Virginia as part of an 0-7 mark against ranked foes.
However, the Blue Devils got a boost with senior TJ Pura, sophomore Catalin Mateas and freshman Robert Levine returning from injury and illness against Florida State, and they will need all three at their best for the team's remaining five regular season matches. Pura has locked down the No. 4 singles spot for head coach Ramsey Smith's team and is undefeated in ACC play, posting a 7-0 record. He also has formed a formidable doubles duo with Mateas that has rattled off four straight wins on Court 3.
“I just feel really confident in myself and my mindset,” Pura said. “I feel really relaxed going into each match.… Whoever my opponent is, I’m going to make it a battle for them, point in point out—not take any points off. Going into the match, I feel like I have a mental edge, and on top of that, I’m probably playing the best tennis of my Duke career.”
Although Pura and Mateas only missed one match with their injuries, Levine was thrown directly into the fire in his return after a month off due to mononucleosis. He was matched up with Guy Iradukunda—who recently climbed into the top 100 in the national rankings—at No. 2 singles and fell 7-5, 7-5.
But the Bedford, N.Y., native showed that he had not lost the spark that led him to three straight singles wins before being forced to watch from the sidelines for a month, moving well and pushing Iradukunda in both sets to give the Blue Devils (11-7, 4-3 in the ACC) a boost during the match.
“[Robert’s been doing] surprisingly well. You never know with mono,” Smith said. “Sometimes it takes a long time for them to get back. He went into FSU not really prepared from a practice standpoint, but he’s had a very good week of practice this week, and he’s only getting better.”
Duke is now almost completely healthy for the first time this season, but No. 24 Nicolas Alvarez remains out with a wrist injury and has yet to make an appearance this season.
With Pura, Mateas and Levine joining freshman stars Nick Stachowiak and Spencer Furman, sophomore Ryan Dickerson was bumped down to the more comfortable No. 6 singles slot, where he is undefeated. The return also allowed classmate Jason Lapidus to focus solely on doubles to make the Blue Devils a much better all-around unit.
The lineup flexibility may be essential against Georgia Tech (13-3, 5-1), as the Yellow Jackets are in the middle of one of the best seasons in program history. They boast one of the top singles players in the country in junior Christopher Eubanks, who is ranked fifth in the nation and holds a 12-1 record at No. 1 singles for Georgia Tech, having won his last nine matches.
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He will test No. 72 Furman—who is 3-2 against ranked foes—on Court 1 and look to deliver in doubles as well.
“Eubanks is one of the best players in college hands down,” Smith said. “He’s got a huge game, he’s a big kid. [He’s a] great ball-striker, one of the best, if not the best in the ACC, and one of the best in the country.”
Georgia Tech also has another ranked singles competitor in No. 89 Andrew Li, who will likely take to Court 2 and challenge a healthy Levine. The Blue Devils will need to fight on every court to stay close and avoid the road blowouts that have marred much of the spring. But the Yellow Jackets are sure to present a formidable challenge, entering Friday having lost just once in their last 11 contests.
Following the Friday match, Duke will travel to South Carolina to take on Clemson (8-11, 1-6), which has struggled mightily in ACC play and will face the Blue Devils after a Friday matchup against the 11th-ranked Tar Heels.
The Tigers are currently on a nine-match losing streak and have totaled just seven team points across the losses. Clemson will be at an extreme talent disadvantage against the Blue Devils, who know they cannot afford any slip-ups as they look to get back to the Big Dance after missing it a year ago for the first time since Smith arrived in 2009.
“We’re really hitting our stride right now as a team,” Pura said. “I’m feeling confident that we’re going to get a couple of road wins this weekend.”
Liz Finny contributed reporting.