It was only two months ago that juniors Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin held championship hardware at the ITA National Summer Championship. Now, the Blue Devil duo has brought another trophy back to Durham.
Five Duke players competed at the 2017 ITA All-American Championship, matching up with many of the top players in the nation in the tournament at the Riviera Tennis Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. The No. 25 doubles tandem of McCarthy and Hamlin left without a blemish on its record, taking home the prestigious national doubles crown Sunday.
“[McCarthy and Hamlin] were willing to do what it took to win, and it was great to see. Going back to the summer, they earned their way into this tournament this summer and definitely took advantage of that opportunity,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I am proud of them. I’m proud of the way that they played.”
The junior duo earned a position in the main doubles draw with the summer title, and after an 8-6 victory knocked out a qualifying pair from Northwestern, McCarthy and Hamlin took down the No. 9 tandem from Arkansas 8-5. In the quarterfinals, an 8-5 win against No. 26 Claudia Wiktorin and Anna Rogers from conference foe N.C. State gave the team a spot in the Final Four.
The top Duke pair then defeated the No. 47 team from Syracuse 6-3, 6-3, which set up a matchup against Texas Tech’s No. 8 tandem of Sarah Dvorak and Sabrina Federici.
“I don’t think that it really set in yet,” Hamlin said. “[I'm] super excited, a lot of emotions. We were just really happy that we were able to get the W.”
The championship was Hamlin and McCarthy's most difficult match of the tournament. They trailed 4-1 early in the first set and relied on their head coach to give them some words of wisdom during the changeover. The juniors adapted and went on to win the second set 6-3 after losing a tight first set 6-4. In the third-set tiebreak, the Blue Devil tandem closed the championship out with a 10-5 win.
For McCarthy and Hamlin, the journey meant something more than a mere 8-0 record to start the season.
"It’s really special, the fact that we’re both juniors and able to do it together,” McCarthy said. “We are really, really close on and off the court. It was something that we can share together for the rest of our college careers onward.”
Duke senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen nearly joined the Blue Devils' top doubles team in the championship match. But the dreams of an all-Duke final vanquished, as the No. 60 team of Harris and Chen was defeated by Dvorak and Federici. However, both Blue Devil teams qualified for the ITA Fall Championships in Indian Wells, Calif., at the beginning of November with their performances.
“I am proud of [McCarthy and Hamlin’s] teammates too.... If Kelly and Sam didn’t play how they did yesterday, we wouldn’t have known the changes that we needed to make today against that Texas Tech team,” Ashworth said. “Even though they didn’t win it, they helped tremendously getting us a good feel for these two in order to win.”
Harris and Chen had a different route to the semifinals. Placed in the qualifying draw, the pair had to win three matches to enter the main draw, and they did just that, defeating teams from Auburn, Georgia and Ohio State 8-4, 8-3 and 8-6, respectively.
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In the main draw, with wins against Oklahoma State and the No. 6 seed from South Carolina, the Duke pair surged into the quarterfinals. Harris and Chen took down Northwestern's No. 5 team of senior Alex Chatt and redshirt senior Maddie Lipp 8-6 for their final victory.
“The more that Kelly and Sam play together, the better they will be,” Ashworth said. “When you put yourself out in those pressure situations of matches, it’s different than playing together in practice.”
The fact that two Duke teams placed in the top four made history, as 2004 was the last year in which a school held half the spots in the semifinals. According to Ashworth, McCarthy and Hamlin’s win was also the first fall individual national championship in his 20 years leading the Blue Devils.
The last time Duke had a team in the doubles finals of this tournament was 2012, when Beatrice Capra and Hanna Mar eventually lost in three sets to a team from Southern California.
The Blue Devils saw their main success in doubles, but also had five players compete in the singles draws. Chen and Hamlin began their quest on the singles side in the pre-qualifying draw. After winning only one match, Hamlin was defeated by Sabina Machalova from Ole Miss. Chen, on the other hand, won all three matches in the draw to join No. 20 Meible Chi, No. 54 Harris and No. 57 McCarthy in the qualifying draw.
“We’ve done a good job with the doubles. We have to pick up our singles play,” Ashworth said. “We have to not give good players second opportunities and finish points when we can.”
Chi, Harris and McCarthy all saw mild success in the qualifying draw, as they each won their first-round matches only to be eliminated in the second round. Chi—the top qualifying seed—lost 6-4, 6-2 to Georgia’s Katarina Jokic. Harris lost 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 to No. 53 Akvile Parazinskaite of Kentucky, and McCarthy was also defeated in three sets 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 to Kansas' No. 35 Anastasia Rychagova.
“The singles [matches] were right there,” Ashworth said. “The difference in these matches was just who played the pressure points better.”
To close out singles play, Chen lost her first-round match in the main draw 6-4, 6-4 to No. 38 Gabriela Knutson, an eventual doubles semifinalist from Syracuse. But Chen’s singles play was not finished just yet, as she entered the consolation qualifying bracket. There, Chen reeled off two more wins against Margo Pletcher from Utah and No. 50 Sybille Gauvain from San Jose State 6-3, 6-1 and 6-1, 6-2, respectively.
Although Duke has two doubles teams already in the ITA Fall Championship, Ashworth is not satisfied yet. The Blue Devils will look to qualify some singles players when they travel down the road to Chapel Hill to compete in the ITA Regionals beginning Oct. 19.
“We played much better than we did two weeks ago in Cary, and now that we have six, seven matches under our belt, I think they will continue to get better,” Ashworth said. “The doubles can definitely bring more. They can gain some confidence on the singles court from the doubles court, and I think they realized that [at] this point in the fall, in the beginning of October, how good of a team we have here.”