With many teams, the next five days present an opportunity to gain top-level doubles experience. But for Duke, those mild expectations pale in comparison.
Four Blue Devils will travel to Indian Wells, Calif. to compete in the Oracle ITA National Fall Championships Nov. 1-5. Facing an array of challenging singles and doubles matches, the team will lean on its previous success this fall slate and attempt to set a gold standard for future Duke teams.
The junior duo of Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin sit at the top of the draw sheet as the No. 1 seed in this final national tournament of the fall circuit. Joining the recent ITA All-American national champions are senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen—who lost in the semifinals of the same event. They hold the No. 3 seed, giving the Blue Devils two of the three top doubles seeds.
“Any time you have success, you may have a target on your back, but that is what we want. We want to be in that position.” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We have to welcome that with open arms…. We have to not only expect that but want that, and that’s what’s going to make us better in the long run. That’s a good kind of pressure to have.”
The top seeds that the Blue Devils possess are not an accident. It is a product of hard work in practice and a cohesive bond between two teammates. The ITA No. 25 junior classmates began their doubles success this summer when they won the ITA National Summer Championships. To open the fall season, McCarthy and Hamlin swept through the Duke James Bonk Invitational with three wins.
Then, it was time for the ITA All-American Championships. Five wins later, the Duke pair flew home with some championship hardware. And with the top seed, their perfect record may move to 13-0 when Championship Sunday rolls around.
“We [need to] play with a lot of confidence. Obviously, we should have a lot of confidence from our last tournament and that we keep getting better,” Ashworth said. “Our doubles play in practices has been really good. We’ve been really aggressive. A lot of moving at the net. I hope that we can just keep building and keep getting better, kind of set the tone for the spring.”
The fate of a perfect record may come against No. 60 Harris and Chen, who were a few points away from an all-Blue Devil final at the All-American Championships at the start of October. These preseason rankings will likely see some major changes, especially if both are able to realize their full potential this week.
With a possible all-Duke championship match on the table Sunday, both tandems need four wins against some of the top doubles players in the nation to find each other across the net. McCarthy and Hamlin will open up with a match against a Georgia pair, and Harris and Chen will kick off their journey against a Northwestern duo in the round of 32.
“Every match you play is going to be tough. There is not going to be any matches where you can look at the draw and think that’s an easy match for me,” Ashworth said. “You have to have that mindset where everyone is going to be good, everyone is going to play their best.”
Although the doubles play this fall has come with historic success, Ashworth also will see how No. 54 Harris, No. 57 McCarthy and Chen do on the singles side starting Wednesday. As a result of a finals appearance at the ITA Carolinas Regional just over a week ago, Harris leads the three Blue Devils with a No. 11 seed. McCarthy and Chen qualified in a different manner, as they met the requirements to receive an at-large selection in the draw. Both Duke athletes were among the final 21 players picked by a selection committee.
“It would be great if we can pick up some great wins in singles out there this week,” Ashworth said. “I hope that they go out there and play well. They’ve been practicing really well, and hopefully they can build on that and capitalize on some good wins.”
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With four players competing in California this week, the remaining three teammates—sophomore Meible Chi, freshman Ema Lazic and senior Rebecca Smaller—will take part in the Kitty Harrison Invitational in Chapel Hill Nov. 3-5. All three will put their efforts on the singles side, with Chi and Smaller forming a doubles duo as well.
No. 20 Chi saw success in her last singles event of her fall freshman campaign as she advanced to the semifinals of the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships. But this fall, Chi was not able to see the same results to qualify for this weekend’s trip to the West Coast.
“Come May, when [the selection committee] does NCAA selections, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter where it was, when it was,” Ashworth said. “Especially for Meible, [she] may have expected to be out in California earlier in the year. But if she takes the right mindset to this weekend, then hopefully her results will show that.”
At the conclusion of weekend, the fall season with its many sparks and memorable moments will come to an abrupt end. The next time that any player will step onto the court donning the Blue Devil logo will be in the new year. So, this final weekend presents a great opportunity for the players to show Ashworth where they should be playing come dual-match season in the spring.
“Every time that they play, whatever tournament it is, directly or indirectly, they are always being judged. This is the last opportunity for everybody to make a statement for us, but also on a national level as well, so I don’t think that anyone wants their last match of the fall—when we’re thinking about lineup stuff in January—[to be] one where they’re not giving it their all,” Ashworth said. “But also, I think that it’s a given with our program. Every time they play, they’re giving everything they can.”