This weekend provided ample opportunity for the Blue Devils to see where they match up with their peer programs, and the results showed just that.
Although No. 8 Duke will not return to Durham with a championship from the ITA National Team Indoors, it will arrive back on campus after going toe-to-toe with schools at the pinnacle of college tennis nationwide. The top 16 teams gathered in Madison, Wis., all vying for a chance to pick up quality wins before conference play commences in a week. After picking up two top-20 wins, the Blue Devils were ousted by No. 3 North Carolina 4-1 Sunday afternoon at Nielsen Tennis Stadium.
“You have to recover emotionally, and that’s where we came out a little flat in our doubles today. I told them afterwards that it’s something we have to learn…. At the beginning of the year, I told them we’re not going to win every match 7-0 and we’re going to have some adversity,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “If we want to win the ACC tournament or NCAA tournament or whatever it is, we have to be able to play at a high level for three straight days and compete at a high level and emotionally be at a high level with no letdown.”
In the competitive semifinal match between the Tobacco Road rivals, the Tar Heels (9-0) jumped out to an early advantage with two victories in doubles to open the match lead to 1-0. In the quarterfinals a day earlier, Duke (6-1) lost the doubles point, which is an area of concern moving forward, especially given the success seen in the fall individual tournaments.
Duke went down early across the board, with scores of 0-5 and 1-4 giving North Carolina room to operate and close it out. The Blue Devils inched back to being down 4-5 on all three courts, but the Tar Heels put their foot down and defeated No. 5 Samantha Harris and Kelly Chen on the top court and No. 2 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin in the second position.
“It’s such a different mindset playing doubles in dual matches and in individual tournaments. A dual-match setting is quicker. You have to be more aggressive and more vocal. I think that we have to really work on our aggressiveness and work on finishing balls and going after the ball,” Ashworth said. “Our dual-match play doubles has not been good this semester and is something that we have to address immediately when we get back this week before we start conference play.... Our doubles have to be the catalyst. We can’t just go through the doubles to get to the singles.”
With the doubles point behind them, the Blue Devils looked to use their strong singles play to win four of the six matches for a trip to the finals Monday afternoon. The lone victory came by way of sophomore No. 106 Meible Chi, who bested North Carolina’s No. 21 Jessie Aney 6-4, 7-5. The Weston, Fla., native remained undefeated in seven dual matches with two ranked wins, the first arriving Saturday against Georgia’s No. 71 Morgan Coppoc.
In October, Chi lost to Aney in straight sets, but now is playing better.
“She’s just herself in the spring.... She’s someone that we need to count on, we need rely on, and she’s answered the door every time we’ve asked her to do that. It’s been great to see and hopefully she keeps getting better and doesn’t become satisfied with anything at all,” Ashworth said. “To know that the work that she’s put in is paying off is a great thing for our entire team.”
But after Duke evened the score, juniors No. 65 McCarthy and No. 119 Hamlin both lost in straight sets to leave the Tar Heels one win away from victory. All three of the final singles matches went to the third set, which gave Duke a chance to sweep for the win.
But one day after No. 30 Chen was celebrating with her teammates for the clinching point against second-seeded Georgia, Tar Heel No. 10 Makenna Jones was the one hugging her teammates on the other side. Chen was defeated 6-2, 3-6, 4-6. No. 9 Harris had her match left unfinished at 6-3, 4-6, 6-6 (1-2), and freshman Hannah Zhao was up 6-3, 6-7(2), 4-3 in the third singles position before the match was decided.
To open up the tournament, Duke bested No. 16 South Carolina 4-0 Friday morning with a doubles point win and victories from McCarthy, Hamlin and Chi. In the quarterfinals, it was Georgia’s turn to face Ashworth’s team. The Blue Devils knocked out the Bulldogs 4-3 with wins for McCarthy, Chen, Hamlin and Chi. Both Harris and Zhao were defeated in two sets.
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“It was a great all-around effort [Saturday] after losing the doubles point, coming out and believing that we can win six singles matches against anybody in the country. That will pay benefits down the road—ACC matches, ACC tournament, NCAA matches,” Ashworth said. “It took a lot out of us emotionally, but it was a great thing and I’m proud of our group for how they came out against Georgia with really nothing to lose. I told them that. Play free and just go after their shots, and we were able to do that.”
Duke will have exactly one week to prepare for ACC play, which begins next Sunday afternoon in Raleigh. The Blue Devils will look to get back in the win column against N.C. State (3-3) at the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center.
“One of the reasons we play this tournament is to see where we are among the best teams in the country, and we’re right there,” Ashworth said. “We’re not going to be a team that feels sorry for ourselves that we lost today. We’re going to learn from it and we’re going to get back to Duke and put in a good week of work before we start conference play this weekend.”