The newly minted top-10 team with the top two doubles pairings in the country did not disappoint to open its season more than 4,500 miles away from home. But like the fall season, the team still left room for improvement with the singles play.
Duke opened the spring slate playing in the Rainbow Invitational in Honolulu. As the temperatures in Durham dropped below the freezing point this week, the Blue Devils scorched their opponents on the doubles side of the court Jan. 17-18. Although Duke entered the tournament ranked ninth in the nation, No. 6 Pepperdine came in as the top team. The Hawaii team also partook in the invitational, serving as the host at the UH Tennis Complex.
The fall season saw its ups and downs in singles, but consistently the doubles players walked away tournament upon tournament playing into the semifinals in multiple occasions and bringing home Duke’s first fall individual national championship under head coach Jamie Ashworth.
“I was happy with our doubles, picking up where we left off playing against some good Pepperdine teams and some Hawaii teams,” Ashworth said. “I was happy with where our doubles were because with that Christmas break, we didn’t want to lose any of the continuity that we had with our combinations.”
That Christmas break did not affect the strong play, as the Blue Devils won six of seven doubles matches to jumpstart the season. Duke was anchored by the top ITA pairing of senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen, who won the only match they played together 7-5 against a Pepperdine team. No. 2 juniors Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin followed suit, as the duo won both of their matches against Pepperdine 7-5 and 6-4.
Although the nation’s top two doubles duos have the ability to secure the doubles point in dual matches consistenly, Duke still was looking for the third pairing throughout much of the fall. But by way of a spring enrollee, Ashworth may have just found the team that can solidify the back end of doubles.
Sophomore Meible Chi struggled at times on the singles end and was tried out with many doubles partners over the course of the fall. But with freshman Hannah Zhao alongside her, the newfound force is one that could take many by surprise in the coming weeks. The duo secured two wins against Hawaii teams 7-5 and 6-3.
“I think for now, those two would probably be our third doubles team. They had some good wins out here and their game styles suit each other really well,” Ashworth said. “We can’t always rely on two doubles teams to win two matches every time, so to have three teams that we’re confident in and to know that we can count on is big.”
To round out the doubles play, senior Rebecca Smaller and freshman Ema Lazic were defeated 6-4 by a Hawaii team, proving to be the only blemish in doubles.
Although the play on the doubles court has translated from the fall to the spring, so has the singles play, which has left Ashworth wanting more. He did, however, see some strong play from singles No. 100 Chi, who bounced back in a big way. The Weston, Fla., native registered two more singles wins to accompany her two doubles victories to finish a perfect 4-0 on the Hills Family trip. Chi defeated her Hawaii opponents in straight sets twice, winning 6-1, 6-3 and 6-3, 6-2.
“She just hit the ball solidly. Her court positioning was good. Emotionally, she was really good in all her matches on the court. She was excited to be on the court. She was pumping her fist. Just little things like that make a huge difference for her and her game,” Ashworth said. “She did a good job playing the ball, not the score, which is something that we talked about…. She needed those wins. She struggled a little bit in the fall and it was good for her to get some confidence before we start play next week.”
In her Blue Devil debut, Zhao split her singles matches, beating a player from Hawaii and losing to another from Pepperdine. According to Ashworth, she has a lot to learn in the coming weeks, but is excited to see what she can bring to the team.
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“She’s just learning that she has to compete every single point and every single match…. It’s a transition from junior tennis to college tennis in that you’re out there playing for yourself. You’re out there for your teammates,” Ashworth said. “If your game is not working, you’ve got to find a way to stay out there.... She’s going to work hard for us and add some tremendous depth which is helpful down the road.”
Zhao’s fellow freshman No. 58 Chen was tasked with two ranked opponents. On the first day of competition, Chen lost to Pepperdine’s No. 31 Mayar Sherif 4-6, 2-6. Ashworth didn’t think that Chen competed as hard as she was capable of against Sherif, but bounced back in a big way the next day as the freshman took down Pepperdine’s No. 28 Ashley Lahey 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4.
“She didn’t get down when she lost that first set, which was great to see. She came out and played a really great second set and third set, she served really well. She didn’t lose her serve at all in the third set,” Ashworth said. “When she’s doing that, she’s tough to beat. When she’s getting two, three free points a game on her serve, she can be one of the best players in the country.”
Harris lost her only singles match and No. 64 McCarthy put up two losses in her two matches, including one to Lahey. Lazic split her singles matches and Smaller also fell short, winning only one of two.
“The more matches we play, the better off we’ll be,” Ashworth said. “Not so much looking at scores, but how they play.”
For Ashworth, there is still ample time before ACC play commences Feb. 18. But the team will have a quick turnaround as Elon travels east to face the Blue Devils at 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon before hosting the ITA Kickoff Weekend next Saturday and Sunday Jan. 27-28.
“It’s more situation than stroke stuff. We have to do a better job when it’s a 3-all, deuce points that can go either way,” Ashworth said. “I don’t think that we can sit back and hope that someone misses. We have to be aggressive in those situations. That was the one area that we really have to focus on…. It’s hard to stimulate that in practice. It’s a mindset and we have to figure out a way to do that.”