After forfeiting three of nine matches Sunday at then-No. 2 Virginia with half their players sick or injured, the Blue Devils needed to get healthier with only six more regular-season dual matches to strengthen their NCAA tournament resume.
Luckily for Duke, three of its players returned to deliver one of its best wins of the season.
The Blue Devils bounced back from their 7-0 loss against the Cavaliers with a 5-2 win against Florida State Friday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Senior TJ Pura and sophomore Catalin Mateas returned from injury to contribute points in singles and doubles, and although freshman Robert Levine lost in No. 2 singles in his first match since Feb. 25 after dealing with mononucleosis, his return let his teammates play on lower courts and dismantle their opponents.
Although the Seminoles are not quite in the top 25, a victory against a team the ITA ranked 27th in its latest poll should give head coach Ramsey Smith’s team plenty of confidence moving forward.
“This is the healthiest and strongest lineup we’ve played all year,” said Pura, who delivered the match-clinching point in singles. “It just puts us a step closer to making the NCAA tournament, which is all we’re focused on right now. We just have to stay humble, keep working hard.”
Duke (11-7, 4-3 in the ACC) won a seesaw battle in doubles, with Pura and Mateas looking refreshed and trouncing Terrell and Terrance Whitehurst 6-0 on Court 3 and Florida State’s Jose Gracia and Lucas Poullain downing Blue Devil sophomore Jason Lapidus and junior Ryan Dickerson 6-2 to direct all eyes to Court 1.
With the crucial initial point at stake, Duke freshmen Spencer Furman and Nick Stachowiak stepped up as they have all season, breaking at 3-3 against Aziz Dougas and Guy Iradukunda and going on to prevail 6-4 thanks to some clutch serving from Stachowiak.
The Blue Devil freshman tandem is now 15-1 in doubles this season.
“That was a huge clincher, to win the doubles point,” Smith said. “[Furman and Stachowiak] break two to three times a set, which is pretty unbelievable. They’ve been as good as I could’ve ever expected them to be.”
Duke’s crowd was also likely as good as anyone could have expected Friday, with huge roars echoing around Ambler as Furman, Mateas and Pura all cruised to easy singles wins to put away the Seminoles (13-6, 3-2).
Up to No. 76 nationally, Furman upset 52nd-ranked Dougaz 6-1, 6-2 on Court 1 to continue his strong singles play. No. 95 Mateas followed suit by routing Poullain 6-1, 6-1 at No. 3 singles, and Pura then clinched a ACC dual-match victory for the third time this year by taking out Rana-Roop Singh Bhullar 6-2, 6-2 on Court 5, where the cheers were especially deafening.
“Those are all my fraternity brothers,” Pura said. “It meant the world for them to come out and support me like that. They were as big a part of the win as I was.”
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“They were respectful, incredibly loud, super supportive and they were only positive for us, nothing negative towards the opponent,” Smith added. “It was a really special atmosphere.”
With the outcome decided, Dickerson added the Blue Devils’ fifth point with a 7-5, 6-0 win against Terrance Whitehurst at No. 6 singles.
Both Stachowiak and Levine battled hard, but ultimately lost to their opponents. Levine took on Iradukunda on Court 2, coming close in both of his sets before falling 7-5, 7-5. Stachowiak fell in similar fashion 7-5, 7-6 (8-6) in his match against Gracia.
Although Levine lost, his return had Duke playing with as much confidence as it has in any of its ACC matchups. Many of its players were back on the courts they expected to play on entering the spring.
“Since Robert’s been out with mono, he hasn’t had the proper preparation to play,” Smith said. “He went out there and really pushed a top guy, a nationally ranked player…. It was tough conditions out there, really windy. But he gave himself a chance, battled in both sets and was super positive. I think it just kind of spread to the other five guys.”
The Blue Devils are still competing without a top-25 singles player in junior Nicolas Alvarez, who has missed the entire spring with a wrist injury. Needing more impressive performances like the one it put forth Friday, Duke will look to keep moving forward without Alvarez and build on its momentum next weekend at No. 15 Georgia Tech and Clemson.
A win against the Yellow Jackets would do wonders for the Blue Devils’ resume—Duke is 0-6 in road matchups against top-25 opponents this season.
“Expectations have kind of been thrown out the window because we’ve had to deal with a lot of missing pieces,” Smith said. “But we’re staring to become more whole of a team and we’re getting healthier.... I feel like we’re ready to finish strong.”
Sameer Pandhare contributed reporting.