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Duke men's tennis bounces back from first loss with dominant sweep of Northwestern

Nicolas Alvarez returned from a two-week absence to dominate in singles and doubles.
Nicolas Alvarez returned from a two-week absence to dominate in singles and doubles.

With its top player back from a brief absence and another singles threat also playing just his second match of the season, Duke steamrolled Northwestern to bounce back from a loss Friday night.

The No. 19 Blue Devils were in full control of their 4-0 victory against the Wildcats at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center two days after losing to No. 12 Illinois, taking the doubles point quickly and then winning three singles matches in straight sets. The match was over in a brisk hour and 54 minutes Sunday afternoon.

"It was a tremendous effort today, starting with the doubles," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. "Doubles energy and aggressiveness was really, really good from all six guys, and it just shows how mentally tough our team is."

Nicolas Alvarez, playing for the first time in two weeks due to a foot issue, had not had time to practice with doubles partner Catalin Mateas prior to taking the court, but the pairing did not look rusty. Alvarez and Mateas wrapped up a comfortable 6-2 win, and the Blue Devils clinched the doubles point shortly afterwards when sophomore Nick Stachowiak and freshman Sean Sculley won 6-3 on Court 1. Jason Lapidus and Ryan Dickerson were locked in a tight 5-5 battle when the point was decided.

No. 48 Alvarez was even more dominant in singles, losing just two games and rarely getting challenged in a 6-2, 6-0 win against Antonioni Fasano on Court 1.

"When you get on top of your opponent, you have to try to maintain what you have been doing without changing anything," Alvarez said. "Sometimes people might get the tendency to get careful and take care of the score by playing differently and playing safer, but I think you always have to try to keep doing what has got you up in the score."

Within a minute, Stachowiak finished off an easy 6-3, 6-1 victory on Court 2, leaving Duke just one match from victory. No. 90 sophomore Robert Levine was the only other Blue Devil to win the first set, though it was briefly unclear where that final point would come from after he lost the first two games of the second set.

But Levine rebounded to win to six straight games to lift Duke to the win, beating Chris Ephron 6-3, 6-2.

 "Once I went down 2-0 in the second, our assistant coach [Jonathan] Stokke really just got me back on track," Levine said. "Once I was playing in my zone with my tempo, it was going how I wanted it to today, so it’s a good feeling."

The two matches this weekend were Levine's first action in dual matches since last spring. Smith said he injured his wrist diving for a ball against Georgia Tech last April and played through the injury for the rest of the season before having surgery during the summer, and he hurt his shoulder when he returned for one tournament in the fall.

A new minor injury is keeping the Blue Devils from finally being fully healthy for now, though. No. 81 Spencer Furman twisted his ankle early in his singles match Friday against Illinois, helping the Fighting Illini (3-1) clinch the match quickly and roll to a 6-1 win. Stachowiak battled back from a one-set deficit to win on Court 3 to earn Duke's only point, and Sculley and Levine each lost in super-tiebreakers when the outcome of the team match was already decided after splitting the first two sets.

"I told the guys after the Illinois match that losses really aren’t that big of a deal by themselves," Smith said. "It’s all about how you bounce back, and that is important, and we’ve dealt with some adversity and some guys a little bit dinged up." 

Smith is not expecting Furman back for at least a week, though he is hoping the Seattle native can return for the National Team Indoors in his hometown in two weeks.

"Going back to Seattle, we need Spencer, but this is the first dual match that he hasn’t played singles and doubles," Smith said. "He’s been so durable for us."

The Blue Devils will visit Tennessee Friday for a road match against the Volunteers and return to host Kentucky and N.C. Central next Sunday in preparation for the West Coast trip.