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Duke men's tennis to welcome Tar Heels for top-15 showdown in Durham

<p>Nicolas Alvarez will go up ahead the top singles player in the nation Saturday.</p>

Nicolas Alvarez will go up ahead the top singles player in the nation Saturday.

After struggling mightily against top competition earlier in the season, Duke rattled off two easy wins against ranked Virginia Tech opponents last weekend. 

But now, the Blue Devils will face the ultimate test: taking on the No. 1 player in the country, who happens to play for their archrivals. 

Top-ranked William Blumberg has been playing collegiate tennis for just over a calendar year after skipping his fall freshman season, but was the NCAA tournament runner-up and played in the 2017 U.S. Open. 

He’s part of a deep and talented No. 9 North Carolina team that has three top-40 players that No. 12 Duke will have to grapple with Saturday at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center at 1 p.m. The Blue Devils are fresh off a bounce-back win against the Hokies, and look to move to 2-0 in ACC play with a win against their historic rivals. Duke will likely pit No. 25 Nicolas Alvarez against the transcendent Blumberg. 

“He does everything well—there are no holes in his game,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said of Blumberg. “He can be aggressive, he can play defense when he needs to, he serves well—great athlete. And really good under pressure. He’s had a heck of a career so far, and definitely one of the best players in the country.”

Duke (10-5, 1-0 in the ACC) had gone just 4-8 against ranked competition before Alvarez downed No. 29 Hokie Mitch Harper Sunday and No. 92 Catalin Mateas beat Virginia Tech's No. 117 Jason Kros. Although it got past then-No. 22 Notre Dame eventually, it got swamped by top-10 opponents in Ohio State and Illinois in the ITA National Indoors in February and got swept by No. 8 Michigan March 1. 

One key to continuing the Blue Devils’ momentum against top opponents like North Carolina (10-3, 1-0) will be improved doubles play. Duke won just two doubles matches in its last six tries, with Jason Lapidus and Ryan Dickerson picking up both of them. 

Smith said the Blue Devils didn’t bring energy to doubles against the Hokies Sunday, and it showed. Despite Lapidus and Dickerson’s win, Alvarez and Mateas got squished 6-4 and Nick Stachowiak and Sean Sculley dropped their match 7-6 (7-5). Smith is encouraged by what he has seen from Lapidus and Dickerson, who have gone 7-4 and are Duke’s only pairing to win a doubles match against a ranked foe. 

“Jason has done a really good job preparing for each match and bringing the right attitude and intensity. He’s primarily a doubles specialist, so he focuses a ton on his doubles, watches a lot of video and is constantly trying to fine-tune his skills,” Smith said. “Ryan has had a great mindset since coming back from indoors. Both of those guys have been really consistent with the energy they brought.”

Smith also noted Duke has had trouble starting in its big matches, failing to capture the team momentum in the first three singles matches, regardless of the doubles outcome. But he was encouraged by the way that his team started hot against the Hokies, helping the Blue Devils win five of six singles matches. 

“Against Michigan, we didn’t do a very good job bouncing back after losing in doubles, at least at the start of singles,” Smith said. “That was a big focus against Virginia Tech: start out strong in singles. We certainly did that, winning two matches 0-and-0 and one match 1-and-1. The bottom half of the lineup only lost two games and came out with a sense of urgency and focus at the beginning.”

Another encouraging sign for Smith has been the return of Spencer Furman. The junior missed most of February with an ankle injury, but came back against Michigan and Virginia Tech, falling both times. Smith said Furman, who has gone 12-7 this year, wasn’t 100 percent in those matches, but should be back and playing both singles and doubles Saturday against the Tar Heels. 

“It’s good for him to get back in the swing of things,” Smith said. “He’s recovered well and in good form.”