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Samantha Harris falls in singles final at ITA Fall Championships for Duke women's tennis

<p>In her senior season, former Blue Devil Samantha Harris led her team to a final four appearance in the NCAA tournament.</p>

In her senior season, former Blue Devil Samantha Harris led her team to a final four appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Two weeks ago, senior Samantha Harris found herself one win shy of a regional championship. Fast forward to Sunday and Harris was within reach of a victorious flight home. But her breakthrough did not come.

No. 54 Harris won five singles matches to hold one of the two prestigious spots in the finals of the ITA Fall Championships this weekend in Indian Wells, Calif., area. Her success in California is no surprise given her play thus far for the Blue Devils. Harris, the tournament's 11th seed, concluded her strong fall with a national championship on the line Sunday afternoon. But she was denied, losing a tough three-set match 7-5, 3-6, 3-6 to Florida International’s Andrea Lazaro.

“I’m proud of the effort that she put in,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “She did a great job giving herself those opportunities, but a great job all week. She should be proud of that and be able build on that coming forward.”

The senior stormed out to a 5-2 lead. But Harris lost a deciding deuce point with a chance to win the set, shifting the momentum. After three straight games from Lazaro to notch the opening set at 5 all, Harris bounced back and took the first set 7-5.

“She gave herself plenty of opportunities to win, which is all you can ask her at this point,” Ashworth said. “She’s played 10 matches in five days with the doubles, so I think she was a little bit tired on the legs side, but that’s definitely understandable. But I’m really proud of her.”

Those tired legs coupled with an intense sun beaming down on the players gave Florida International’s Lazaro a small window to operate. The second set saw Lazaro excelling with her strong forehand, and Harris was broken on serve three times in the set. Lazaro took the second set 6-3 and powered her way through to the final set, where she won 6-3. Harris began her comeback down 3-1 in the deciding set and broke serve on a deciding deuce point. But she was broken right back, and the rest was history.

Harris ended the fall season with 11 wins in her final 13 matches, including five wins against ranked opponents. These five victories were against in the No. 3, 4, 18, 24 and 65 players, and she only bowed out to No. 29 and No. 55 in the nation.

“It gives her a ton of confidence to build on. I think that Sam can easily be one of the top players in the country,” Ashworth said. “She’s played pressure points better these last two weeks than she has before. She can keep building on that as she looks toward the spring and beyond for her tennis career.”

Harris’ success in singles was not the only triumph of the tournament. Paired with freshman Kelly Chen, the No. 60 duo left with three wins, including one over Georgia’s No. 34 pair in straight sets en route to a semifinal appearance. This result marks the second straight national tournament that this third-seeded Duke tandem advanced to the final four, as they arrived at the same position in the ITA All-American Championships in October.

“[With] Kelly and Sam getting [to] a semifinal again this week of a grand slam tournament, they’re showing that they could be one of the best teams in the country,” Ashworth said.

Although Chen’s partner represented the Blue Devils well in the main draw, the freshman also displayed her poise and ability in singles. After losing her first-round match, the freshman was regulated to the consolation bracket, where she knocked off No. 47 Christina Rosca from Vanderbilt and No. 60 Taylor Russo from Auburn in her two singles wins.

“[Kelly] has to come out and play with an intensity and focus every time that she plays. She’s done a much better job in practice of doing that, kind of learning from someone like Sam. Sam’s such a great example in practice,” Ashworth said. “You come in as a junior player with all kind of success, you think that college tennis is going to be easy, it’s not. I think she learned a lot about herself in the last month, but [she] will definitely keep getting better.”

To round out singles play in California, junior Kaitlyn McCarthy cruised to a 6-0, 6-1 victory to open up her tournament. But the Cary, N.C., native was upended by Oklahoma State’s No. 43 Vladica Babic.

For much of the fall, the buzz around the nation circled around McCarthy and her doubles partner junior Ellyse Hamlin. Their undefeated record to open the season, coupled with a national championship at the ITA All-American Championships last month, saw a stunning hit in the first round of the tournament. The top-seeded duo was eliminated by a Georgia pair 6-3, 1-6, 0-1(8).

“I talked to them after about you have to play like a champion every time you play. All your success, if you don’t take that champion attitude to the court every time you play, it can be taken away from you very quickly,” Ashworth said. “They learned from that. You lose in a tiebreaker like that. It’s those 10-point tiebreakers, it’s kind of a crapshoot. You hope the best team wins, or the best person wins if it’s a singles match, but that’s not always the case."

With Harris, Chen, McCarthy and Hamlin partaking in a tournament on the other side of the nation, the three Blue Devils who did not qualify for the ITA Fall Championships stayed home and played in the Kitty Harrison Invitational at North Carolina’s Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.

Sophomore No. 20 Meible Chi, senior Rebecca Smaller and freshman Ema Lazic all rode home victorious Saturday and continued their strong play Sunday. Although Lazic lost to No. 116 Silvia Chinellato from South Carolina, Chi and Smaller cruised to their second singles wins of the weekend. Their success did not end on the singles court, as they teamed up to win their only doubles match. 

“We won some matches, but our doubles play [Saturday] with Meible and Becky was great. It was one of the best doubles matches we’ve played, even in the tournaments that we’ve won,” Ashworth said. “Meible and Becky hadn’t really played together. They beat a really good team in South Carolina yesterday and played free and played loose, so it was a great way for them to end the court on their doubles, end the fall with that kind of doubles play.”

Ashworth is excited about his team's success this fall. From a doubles national championship to a singles national championship appearance, the team has proven why Duke remains a women's tennis powerhouse.

With the conclusion of play Sunday, the team has officially closed out the fall season. The next time they will walk on the court together for a match will come in the middle of January. But for now, Ashworth will evaluate his team’s fall play alongside assistant coach Matt Manasse as they will ultimately decide on a dual match lineup come the new year.

“I see how hard those guys have worked and so they definitely deserve that and we’re definitely playing at that level,” Ashworth said. “Sam’s playing at the level of a top-five player in the country. Our doubles have been playing at that level, so I’m not surprised by the results, but three months ago if you asked me [if we would have this success], I would’ve been surprised.”