After a long few months of cross-country travel and their first taste of an ACC opponent last weekend in Wisconsin, the Blue Devils will finally dig into conference play this weekend.
No. 4 Duke will make the short trip across the Triangle to the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center as the Blue Devils visit N.C. State in Raleigh at 2 p.m. Sunday when the two sides begin their respective ACC regular-season slates. The Blue Devils, despite a defeat at the hands of now-No. 1 North Carolina last Sunday at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, moved up five spots in this week's ITA rankings and will be searching for a repeat of last season, when they routed the Wolfpack 5-2 to kickstart a 13-match winning streak.
"One of the things we talk about is the history and tradition of our program and how it carries down from class to class, group to group, and that history and tradition started with ACC play," Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. "We wouldn’t have the success on the national level that we’ve had without our success in the conference first. There has to be that excitement, and that’s what we have to put ourselves in a position for in May."
Although the Blue Devils' run to the semifinals of the ITA indoor nationals continued a positive start to the team's spring season, doubles has been the weak point thus far. Duke (6-1) dropped two of three doubles matches against Washington at home in late January before doing the same against both second-seeded Georgia and the Tar Heels in Madison last weekend.
The struggles have been somewhat of a surprise, especially given the dominance of pairing Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin during the fall season. After the nation's No. 2 duo cruised to the ITA All-American doubles title in September and racked up 15 wins in their first 18 doubles matches of the season, McCarthy and Hamlin have lost two straight.
Add in losses in three of the last five doubles matches for the former No. 1 pairing of Kelly Chen and Samantha Harris, and it's made for a rough start in the Blue Devils' last few matches.
“The biggest thing we work on is finishing balls, being a little bit more aggressive in our movement and not being so static at the net and taking some chances and not just getting in crosscourt rallies on the ground," Ashworth said of his team's doubles work in practice. "I think that when we’re moving and when we can finish balls, then our teams are worthy of where they’ve been ranked. When we get a little bit more passive and sit back in some crosscourt rallies, then anything can happen.”
For only the second time all season, Duke will play in a true road match—something it will have to get used to, as the Blue Devils play their first four ACC contests away from Durham, not returning for a home league contest until late March against Notre Dame.
Duke will also have to contend with Mother Nature, as the match is scheduled to take place on N.C. State's outdoor courts.
The Wolfpack (4-4), who have been thoroughly dominated by a pair of ranked opponents thus far, have struggled to just reach the .500 mark on the season but return five of their six singles players from last season's matchup with the Blue Devils.
Although the seventh-ranked pairing of Claudia Wiktorin and Anna Rogers could provide a bit of a challenge in the doubles competition, Duke should have a significant advantage on the singles side, with none of N.C. State's players ranked inside the ITA top 100.
Regardless, as the Blue Devils ready for the meat of their regular season, the opening weekend should only reaffirm that Duke is a team poised to make yet another deep postseason run.
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"Every time that we play is another opportunity to prove themselves," Ashworth said. "That’s something that we talked about as a group is that we want to have that same level of commitment and level of focus and energy every time we walk on the court, no matter who the opponent is. When we get in a situation when we’re playing a Georgia, who is top five, or UNC, it’s not an on-off switch. For us to be a really good team, we have to do that no matter who our opponent is."