In the final month of the regular season, the Blue Devils faced one of their toughest opponents all season in hostile territory before returning home, and the result was one that had not occurred in almost two months.
No. 3 Duke kicked off the weekend Friday afternoon with a 4-2 loss to No. 4 Georgia Tech at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex in Atlanta. The Blue Devils followed up their first loss in 11 matches with a 7-0 victory against Clemson Sunday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Duke now sits tied atop the ACC standings with rival No. 1 North Carolina, which the Blue Devils will host April 20.
Friday’s top-five matchup was Duke’s first since 2014, when it fell to UCLA in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The Blue Devils are now 5-6 in top-five meetings since the start of the 2008-09 national championship season.
“It wasn’t what they did, I think it was a lack of what we did. We put ourselves in positions to win points and to finish points and we weren’t able to do it,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We just gave up too many free points, too many missed volleys, missed serves, missed returns. They just did a better job on the bigger points than we did. We didn’t give ourselves a chance by not putting balls in play.”
The Blue Devils (17-2, 9-1 in the ACC) got off to a quick start on Court 3 Friday afternoon, where the duo of sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao knocked off Georgia Tech’s Johnnise Renaud and Nami Otsuka 6-1. The other two matches went down to the wire.
At second doubles, the nation’s No. 5 duo of senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen fell two points short in a tiebreaker for Duke, as a backhand slice was just out of the reach of Chen.
On Court 1 with the doubles point on the line, No. 7 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin also lost in a tiebreaker 6-7 (4) to No. 2 Paige Hourigan and Kenya Jones. A forehand into the net left the Blue Devils down a point heading into singles play.
No. 63 Chi continued her strong play with a 6-3, 6-2 win against Renaud, who beat Chi twice last season. The win marked her 22nd in a row win dating back to the fall. No. 26 Chen continued her successful freshman campaign with a 6-3, 6-4 victory against No. 64 Jones. Zhao lost to fellow freshman Flores 3-6, 2-6 to notch the scoring at two for each side.
With three more matches to play, rain began to fall and the match was moved to the indoor courts, but the Blue Devils could not close it out.
“The courts indoors are a little bit different. We had adequate warmup. That’s not why we lost,” Ashworth said. “It definitely takes away a little bit of the momentum that I thought we were gaining back a little bit, but Georgia Tech played a great match.... They’re top five in the country for a reason.”
After No. 85 Hamlin fell to Otsuka 5-7, 4-6, No. 4 Harris could not keep the match alive, as she was defeated by No. 19 Hourigan 3-6, 6-2, 3-6 to hand the Yellow Jackets (16-4, 8-2) the win. No. 79 McCarthy had her match left unfinished after she split the first two sets 5-7, 7-5 against Jarlskog.
Duke regrouped and cruised to a sweep to get back into the win column Sunday afternoon back at home.
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For the second straight match, Zhao and Chi earned a 6-1 victory to place Duke in an early position to take the doubles point. The Duke tandem has now won nine of their last 10 matches. The clinching point came on Court 2 when McCarthy and Hamlin won 6-4. The match was notched at four-all until a volley winner put the Blue Devils a game away. Clemson (11-10, 4-6) missed a shot into the net, leaving the doubles point going to the home team.
“The scheduling gods didn’t do us any favors, playing home and away on the same weekend. I thought that we were physically a little bit tired, but we were able to push through it there,” Ashworth said. “Same with the singles. The beginning was a little bit flat, but once we started playing with a little bit of adrenaline and momentum, we really took over.”
On Court 1, Harris looked to bounce back against another highly-ranked opponent. After three service holds apiece from the Melbourne, Australia native and No. 20 Marie Leduc, Harris broke Leduc’s serve and the rest was history.
“I’ve played her a couple of times last season. I knew exactly how she was going to play,” Harris said. “If I could mentally beat her and break her down, then I would be able to win the match pretty easily.”
The Blue Devil senior took the first set 6-4, and though Harris lost the opening game of the second set, she proceeded to win the next six games for a 6-4, 6-1 victory. On match point, Harris was on the run to her right and had to slide to return an overhead from Leduc. The Clemson junior then missed another overhead into the net. With the win, Harris took sole possession of second place on Duke’s all-time ACC wins list with 37.
“I struck to my tactics, going into the forehand corner for the whole time and I broke her down physically,” Harris said. “[Leduc] was making quite a few loose errors. Quite a few points, she just handed them to me, and I was able to really knock her down and take every opportunity I had and win that pretty easily.”
Before Harris’ win clinched the team victory, Zhao and Hamlin walked off the courts quickly with comfortable straight-set wins. After winning the first set 6-3, Hamlin swept the second set 6-0 for Duke’s first singles point of the day.
On Court 4, McCarthy came from behind early in the first set and continued her momentum into the second frame for a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
In the second singles spot, Chi won her 23rd straight match Sunday 6-2, 6-2 for Duke’s fifth point of the match. Ashworth noted after the match that Chi was not giving away free points and has played consistent and aggressive tennis during her win streak.
The only Blue Devil that did not win her match in straight sets was Chen, who lost the first set, but opened up the second set with a service break and a hold for a 2-0 lead. The freshman took the second frame to set up a 10-point tiebreaker to decide the match. On her third match point, Chen won 4-6, 6-2, 1-0 (8) against a hard-serving Tiger. Ashworth said Chen adjusted her court positioning, in particular on the return of serve, in order to get back into the match.
The Blue Devils will go on the road next weekend, facing Syracuse Friday evening and then traveling south to meet Pittsburgh Sunday morning for their final two road contests of the season.
“Syracuse is very good. They just beat Georgia Tech last week and especially playing indoors in their place is one of the tougher places to play. The courts are really fast. We have to work on making volleys, finishing points—little stuff, but stuff that we have to make sure that we’re able to do,” Ashworth said. “Making first serves, just some basic things, but being aggressive, especially with our doubles play. I think our doubles play will kind of set the tone for the weekend.”