As one of two unbeaten teams in ACC play, the Blue Devils hit the road hoping to avoid any miscues before their schedule toughens toward the end of the regular season.
No. 15 Duke will continue league play Friday at 4 p.m. against Notre Dame at the Eck Tennis Pavilion in South Bend, Ind., before traveling to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to face off against Boston College at the Flynn Recreation Complex Sunday at 11 a.m. Although the Blue Devils have recently had standout performances in both doubles and singles, a road matchup against the Fighting Irish—sitting just outside the top 25—could lead to a hiccup as Duke looks to stay atop the league standings.
The Blue Devils still have to face No. 4 North Carolina and No. 6 Georgia Tech—the other unbeaten ACC team—near the end of the regular season, meaning Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth's squad cannot afford any early mistakes to keep its goals within reach.
“We have a team who would much rather play matches than practice, so we have two great opportunities in Notre Dame and Boston College this weekend to play and to keep getting better,” Ashworth said. “These are the steps we need to take over the next three weeks before the ACC tournament. We're in the home stretch here and we've done a good job so far, and we need to keep building on that.”
Although the Blue Devils (13-3, 7-0 in the ACC) struggled at the end of the indoor season, they are playing their best tennis thanks to depth in singles on the middle and lower courts.
On Courts 5 and 6, senior Alyssa Smith and sophomore Ellyse Hamlin have recently come into their own. Despite not playing from October to February, Hamlin has gone 5-2 since her 2017 debut against Florida Gulf Coast.
The Blue Devil sophomore has been able to contribute quick points on Court 6, giving Duke early advantages against conference opponents. Smith has posted impressive wins of her own, blanking Virginia Tech’s Sansitha Nandakumar 6-0, 6-0 and enduring a grueling two-match streak with three set tiebreakers in five complete sets.
On the middle courts, both Kaitlyn McCarthy and No. 57 Chalena Scholl have gone undefeated this year in ACC singles, with McCarthy winning every match since Duke’s loss to then-No. 6 Georgia Feb. 10. McCarthy and Scholl’s consistency on Courts 3 and 4 gave Duke the edge needed to overcome tougher matchups such as the 4-3 victory against then-No. 15 TCU and the 5-2 victory Sunday against Clemson.
“There's a lot of confidence coming from the first half of ACC play,” McCarthy said. “I've been playing well and winning a lot of my matches, and that’s been awesome. Looking forward, I want to build on that confidence and keep rolling and keep playing well, especially this weekend.”
Despite the Blue Devils' success, Notre Dame (16-3, 7-2) has the weapons to pull off an upset.
Although Duke's top two singles players in No. 24 Meible Chi and No. 65 Samantha Harris are normally forces to be reckoned with, some inconsistencies in recent performances could give the Fighting Irish a weakness to exploit.
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Chi has recently struggled at No. 2 singles, falling to then-No. 66 Estela Perez-Somarriba of Miami 6-3, 6-1, and recently getting caught in close matches against Clemson’s then-No. 83 Ayan Broomfield and Virginia Tech’s then-no. 97 Natalie Novotna. On Court 1, Harris lost to the Hokies’ Francesca Fusinato 2-6, 5-7, and Virginia’s No. 43 Rosie Johanson but has since bounced back with two dominant wins leading into the weekend.
The Fighting Irish pack a powerful punch on the top singles courts led by No. 71 Monica Robinson and Brooke Broda on the top two courts. Robinson is currently 7-2 in the ACC, and Broda has gone 6-3 in her last nine matches. If either player can manage an upset, Duke could find itself in a dogfight after a statement win against Clemson.
Another area where Notre Dame could potentially upset the Blue Devils is in doubles. Although Duke’s doubles play has improved from the start of the season, the Tigers controlled the doubles point Sunday, upsetting the No. 36 tandem of Chi and McCarthy 6-3. The Fighting Irish will hope to use their own top duo of Robinson and Mary Closs to seize early momentum, though the pair enters Friday having lost its two most recent matches.
“[Clemson] played very well,” McCarthy said. “They played aggressive, good doubles…. The best thing we can do from a match like that is to learn from what they did well and what weaknesses they exposed of ours.”
After the first tough road test of the weekend, the Blue Devils will take on Boston College (8-9, 3-6). The Eagles recently dominated Miami 6-1 but have struggled all season and are looking to get back on track against Duke.
With the postseason rapidly approaching, the Blue Devils hope they can continue to improve, with the team ultimately hoping to excel in the ACC tournament and get back to the NCAA tournament's Round of 16 following an early-round upset last year.
“We have three weeks off the ACC tournament but seven matches left to play,” Ashworth said. “We need to look at each as its own entity and not worry about the end result down the road. We need to just take each opportunity we have to play and get better. So when it comes time for that ACC tournament, we'll be at our best and be as match tough as we could possibly be.”