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Duke men's tennis set for early challenge at ITA National Indoors vs. Ohio State

<p>Ryan Dickerson and the Blue Devils will see how they stack up against the top teams in the country this weekend.</p>

Ryan Dickerson and the Blue Devils will see how they stack up against the top teams in the country this weekend.

For nearly a decade, qualifying for ITA National Indoors had become a given for Duke, but in recent years, that has not been the case. 

But after a two-year drought, the Blue Devils managed to qualify even without their star, Nicolas Alvarez.  

No. 20 Duke will travel to Seattle for the ITA National Team Indoor Championship, one of the most prestigious events in college tennis, starting Friday, looking to sustain its momentum from a strong start to the spring. The 15th-seeded Blue Devils will open play Friday afternoon against second-seeded Ohio State in the 16-team field that includes all of the nation's top-12 teams. 

If Duke wins, it will take on the winner of No. 7 UCLA and No. 10 Illinois, and could continue playing until Monday if it keeps winning. The Blue Devils have won two straight matches after dropping a tightly-contested match to Tennessee Feb. 9. 

“Just the opportunity to be going to Seattle is an accomplishment already,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We had a tough setback at Tennessee in a really close match that could have gone either way, but then we bounced right back and beat a very good Kentucky team. I think that’s going to give us a lot of confidence going into the weekend.”

Duke (6-2) had won four of five matches to start the spring, falling just to then-No. 12 Illinois, but fell 4-1 to the Volunteers despite going the distance in every singles match while getting swept in doubles. 

But against Kentucky and N.C. Central Feb. 11, the Blue Devils rebounded, not losing a single doubles match and dropping just one singles match. Duke will have to be at its top form against the undefeated Buckeyes (8-0), who boast four ranked players, including No. 5 Mikael Torpegaard. 

The 53rd-ranked Alvarez will likely face off against Torpegaard in the top slot Friday, looking to win his third straight decision since missing time with a minor injury in January. Alvarez missed much of 2017 with a wrist injury, but returned this fall, finishing 5-2 but getting blown out in both matches against ranked competition. 

Ramsey said that Alvarez is working on becoming more aggressive on the court—he is now standing closer to the baseline. 

“He’s working on playing a bit more on his terms,” Smith said. “It’s neat for him to be in there and it gives everyone a little bit of a boost. In a way, it was good for us to play without him earlier. It gave our team some confidence knowing we can win without him. Having him back is now a huge bonus. If we can get the whole group healthy and playing together, we’ll be extremely dangerous.”

The Blue Devils have a small roster of just eight that has struggled to keep everyone healthy this season, so Alvarez’s return is certainly welcome.

Beyond Alvarez, the Blue Devils will need contributions from key contributors further down in the lineup. Outside of Alvarez and Nick Stachowiak, who has gone 2-0, Duke has struggled against ranked competition, finishing a combined 1-5. 

It hasn't been much better on the doubles' end of things—Duke is just 1-4 against ranked competition. 

The Blue Devils will certainly have to buck those trends if they want to avoid making a quick exit and flying back to Durham after just one day. 

“Obviously, this is 16 of the greatest teams in the country,” Smith said. “We’re excited to go out there and battle and see what happens.”