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Duke women's tennis hosts No. 1 North Carolina with ACC regular-season title at stake

<p>Samantha Harris withdrew from the NCAA individuals doubles competition.</p>

Samantha Harris withdrew from the NCAA individuals doubles competition.

Facing their last home weekend of the regular season, Duke still has a chance to secure the ACC regular-season title.

And with the toughest test of their dual-match season standing between them and the crown, the Blue Devils will need to dig deep to come out on top this weekend.

No. 4 Duke will take on top-ranked North Carolina and Virginia Tech this weekend at home at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Starting with the Tar Heels Friday at 6 p.m., the Blue Devils will face tough matches at every court, with sole possession of first place in the ACC in the balance. Duke will then take on the Hokies Sunday at noon to close out its regular season.

“Our biggest thing is that we want to relax and have fun and let the results take care of themselves,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We played [North Carolina] in February earlier in the year and we felt that we really left some chances on the court and left some opportunities on the court, but we were able to learn a lot from that. The fact that we could compete with the best team in the country… there's no fear in playing that match.”

Duke (19-2, 11-1 in the ACC) has not taken down North Carolina since 2014, and it will be crucial for the Blue Devils to start off strong and secure the doubles point early against the Tar Heels.

North Carolina (22-2, 11-1) has notched six straight wins since its loss against Georgia Tech in late March. In that time, the Tar Heels have dropped the doubles point just once, oftentimes sweeping the wide courts 2-0 early on. 

Sporting the top-ranked tandem in the nation of Jessie Aney and Alexa Graham as well as the No. 23 duo of Alle Sanford and Sara Daavettila, North Carolina consistently nabs an early lead and then translates that success into singles, creating an advantage that most teams have struggled to break through.

Although Duke boasts the No. 6 duo of senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen as well as the No. 9 tandem of Ellyse Hamlin and Kaitlyn McCarthy, the Blue Devils have had a history of struggling at the outset. In their 4-2 loss to the Yellow Jackets as well as their 4-2 victory against Syracuse just last week, Duke struggled to find a rhythm and ultimately found themselves behind heading into singles. 

For the Blue Devils to take the crucial doubles point, they may have to fall back on their Court 3 duo of sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao to take down the Tar Heel tandem of Chloe Ouellet-Pizer and Marika Akkerman.

“We have to play our doubles with no fear,” Ashworth said. “In saying that and talking to the girls this week, we can't have a fear of missing. If we do the right things and we miss, that's fine—as long as we understand that we can't be afraid to go after our shots and afraid to move and afraid to be active. Early in the matches against what we have coming up this weekend with Virginia Tech and UNC and looking forward into next weekend, we have to establish ourselves early in the matches as having no fear.”

Although doubles has proven to be shaky, Duke more than makes up for it with firepower on the singles courts.

No. 4 Harris is the Blue Devils' headliner, wreaking havoc on Court 1 with an 8-2 record in ACC play including resume wins against No. 5 Gabriela Knutson and No. 18 Carly Touly. She will likely be pitted against either 11th-ranked Makenna Jones or No. 24 Sanford, but Harris has proven repeatedly that top-ranked competition does not faze her. 

Backing up the Duke senior will be 29th-ranked Chen. Usually bouncing between Court 3 and Court 4, the Cerritos, Calif., native is undefeated in ACC play. Chen has only played one ranked opponent in that span, though, and with a likely matchup against either No. 40 Daavettila or No. 82 Aney, the Blue Devil freshman can’t let the Tar Heels steal a win.

“We've got to play to win and really take it to them,” Harris said. “Previously, we've been really defensive and not wanting to miss, but I think we've just got to go with the mindset of being aggressive and taking the first opportunity.”

Although Duke has plenty of firepower from its two star players, as well as consistently strong performances from No. 81 Chi and Hamlin, the real advantage North Carolina has comes from its robust middle and lower courts. Sporting a singles lineup that boasts top-125 players at all six positions, the secret to the Tar Heels’ success has been crushing Courts 3-6. 

With McCarthy, Chi and Hamlin having little to no experience against ranked opposition through ACC play, they will be in for their biggest challenges of the season Friday.

Duke’s matchup against North Carolina will require a herculean effort, but the Blue Devils will likely have a reprieve against Virginia Tech (12-9, 3-9).

Battling in the bottom quadrant of the ACC, the Hokies lack major threats in both singles and doubles. Although No. 63 Natalie Novotna is their best player—going toe-to-toe with some of the ACC’s best at No. 1 singles—Duke has more depth than Virginia Tech and should have an easier match before heading into the ACC tournament. But for now, all eyes are on the Tar Heels.

“We always have great matches [with North Carolina],” Harris said. “Our first match earlier this year was a really close match and we match up really well, so I'm just really excited to be able to compete with them again, especially playing for a regular-season ACC title.”