More than nine months ago, Duke star Nicolas Alvarez played his last match in paradise.
When he finally returned from the wrist injury that had sidelined him, he was welcomed back with a rainstorm in Tulsa.
But playing indoors after his hiatus, he didn’t miss a beat.
In his first match back since being forced to withdraw from the Rainbow Warrior Classic in Waikiki, Hawai'i, Alvarez, the No. 34 player in the country, toppled No. 32 Nathan Ponwith of Georgia in the main draw of the ITA All-American Championship this week at Michael D. Case Tennis Center in Oklahoma. The former All-American fell in the second round to No. 24 Martin Redlicki of UCLA 6-1, 7-5, but his strong early play was an encouraging sign for a Blue Devil team that is short on depth with only eight on its roster.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “I didn’t know how he would be mentally in his first college tournament in a long time. His first match was indoors on very quick courts because of the rain, so I was a little worried it would take him a while to get his timing. But he lost a tough first set and bounced back to beat Georgia’s No. 1 player.”
The redshirt junior opted not to undergo surgery on his wrist and missed all of the dual match season, something Smith said was the correct choice. As a freshman, Alvarez broke onto the scene and finished the season ranked No. 11 before regressing slightly in his sophomore year, though still earning All-ACC first-team honors.
In his first match Thursday, Alvarez still had to shake off some rust, falling 4-6 in the first set before winning the final two sets 6-3, 7-5 against Ponwith, the 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year. But Smith said Alvarez appeared to be 100 percent.
“His wrist looked great and he played some really good tennis,” Smith said. “He had a great mindset for the tournament and competed really well, but unfortunately ran into a tough, aggressive player [Friday], because he was playing well enough to go deep. Everyone there is good, and [I'm] really happy to see him get that first win.”
Against that tough field, the rest of the Blue Devils didn’t advance as far as they had hoped, save for a strong performance from Nick Stachowiak, who nearly made it to the main draw from the qualifying round. After finishing 32-12 last season, the sophomore toppled No. 96 Thibault Forget of Southern California 6-2, 6-1 in the first round and Indiana's Kevion Tabrizi 6-2, 6-4 before falling in three sets to Ohio State's Kyle Seelig.
Smith said Stachowiak worked countless hours on his forehand, serve and strength this summer, which paid dividends for him.
“With him, it’s just getting into a rhythm and getting matches under his belt,” Smith said. “He’s definitely getting better and it was a step forward for him. He played with a lot of confidence and did the things we’ve been working on well.”
Two weeks after winning three of four titles at the Duke James Bonk Invite, Duke didn’t enjoy quite the same top-to-bottom success that it did in its first tournament of the season.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
No. 44 Spencer Furman won his first match in the main draw against Arizona State's Tim Ruehl 6-4, 7-5, but fell to No. 14 Gustav Hansson of Ole Miss in the second round. Duke’s other singles player in the qualifying draw, No. 61 Catalin Mateas, blanked Tulsa's Jarod Hing 6-0, 6-0 before falling to Georgia's Walker Duncan 6-2, 7-6 (6).
Freshman Sean Sculley and junior Ryan Dickerson were both slated to play in the prequalifying round, but did not make the trip to Tulsa while mending foot and hip injuries, respectively.
“They’re small things,” Smith said. “Nothing major and I expect them to be ready for regionals. It was a last-minute thing.”
Before the Blue Devils travel to Cary, N.C., Oct 13-17 for the ITA Carolina Regional, they will have some improvements to make. Smith was most disappointed with the play of the No. 12 doubles pairing of Furman and Stachowiak, which fell 6-4, 4-6, 10-4 to the No. 22 duo of Ponwith and Emil Reinberg in the first round before falling in straight sets to an unranked Wisconsin group.
“It felt like we didn’t come out with the right energy in our first match, strangely,” Smith said. “We did a lot better job in the second match, but played a team that was really hot. Especially in doubles at this level, it goes so fast, that if you’re not quite ready to go or a little bit off, anybody can beat anybody.”