Four months ago, freshman Hannah Zhao was still in high school. Friday night, she earned one of the biggest wins of her career to clinch the match against the top team in the nation and the Blue Devils’ biggest rivals.
No. 4 Duke knocked off top-ranked North Carolina 5-2 Friday evening in an upset victory that eclipsed the four-hour mark at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Led by a dominant showing in singles, the Blue Devils earned their first victory against the Tar Heels since 2014 to clinch a share of the ACC regular-season title before winning it outright Sunday afternoon against Virginia Tech.
“The level of play that we played at gives us confidence—the trust in each other and the belief that they have in each other and to know when we put our mind to it, we can compete and challenge anybody in the country. Our conference is so tough. I think it’s something we need to really be proud of and take a moment to step back,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said Friday. “We want to finish off what we started four months ago and not come out and be flat and be satisfied with anything.”
The Blue Devils (20-2, 12-1 in the ACC) jumped out to an early lead in doubles, as the No. 6 duo of senior Samantha Harris and freshman Kelly Chen held serve on a deciding deuce point at 4-2 to set up a 6-3 victory against No. 23 Alle Sanford and Sara Daavettila. But soon after on Court 3, sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao fell 4-6 to the Tar Heel tandem of Makenna Jones and Marika Akkerman.
With the doubles point in the balance, juniors Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin soared out to an early 4-1 lead on Court 1 before North Carolina’s top-ranked duo surged back to win 7-6(5).
In a match between two of best teams in the nation, the doubles point is usually a critical component of the recipe for a win. But Duke did not end up needing it—in fact, the Blue Devils were a mere five points away from a clean 7-0 sweep in the team match, with two doubles points and three singles points serving as the difference for the two individual match points the Tar Heels (22-3, 11-2) claimed.
“The beginning of the singles was about character because I felt like and I think our girls felt like we didn’t get beat in doubles, we lost the doubles point, and there’s a difference,” Ashworth said. “The doubles point was on our rackets. We were up and just didn’t execute like we wanted to execute. We talked about in the five minutes in between, ‘Look, it’s right there for you. But we have to go out there and we have to take it and we have hit the ball and we have to go after our shots. If we miss, we miss.’”
Three Duke players in particular jumped out quick for an early advantage in singles. No. 81 Chi, No. 29 Chen and Hamlin each took a commanding 5-0 lead in the opening set.
“Win or lose the doubles point, it’s huge if you can look at the scoreboard and see that people have started quickly. It gives me a lot of confidence,” McCarthy said. “Having people out there that were leading the team off the courts was huge. Being able to finish those matches really does free people up to swing more freely and play more freely and the way that we need to play. It allowed us to do what we did today.”
Hamlin was the first Blue Devil off the court. After winning the opening set on a deciding deuce point, the junior aced North Carolina’s Chloe Ouellet-Pizer to take a 5-2 advantage and closed out the dominant 6-1, 6-2 win on Court 5.
“When Ellyse is moving forward and playing with emotion and playing aggressive, then a result like today doesn’t surprise me,” Ashworth said. “When Ellyse is focused, she can compete with anybody.”
Chen quickly added her name to the win count, as the freshman bested No. 82 Jessie Aney 6-0, 6-3 in the fourth singles spot. On Court 2, Chi earned a 6-1, 6-4 win against No. 24 Sanford after Sanford missed her shot into the net.
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The clinching match for Duke was in the grasp of both Zhao and McCarthy. The freshman eventually took home the honor of the celebration following her three-set victory. Zhao struggled at the onset, as North Carolina’s Akkerman led 5-1 quickly before holding on to win 6-4 in the opening set.
But Zhao turned the match around and never gave the Tar Heel redshirt junior a chance to come close to the victory, seizing a 5-0 lead in the second and third sets. A heavy top-spin cross-court forehand forced Akkerman into an error to cap Zhao’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win, as the freshman was embraced by two teammates and the home crowd roared.
“That was definitely a learning experience for Hannah. Her first regular season match with UNC with so much on the line.... She did a really good job of changing what she was doing,” Ashworth said. “I said to her, ‘Hannah, just play. There’s nothing I can say to you that is going to change this. It’s a decision that you have to make.’”
On Court 3, McCarthy was next in line for victory. After grinding out a 6-4 first set, the junior fell 2-6 in the second set to No. 83 Alexa Graham. But the Cary, N.C., native regrouped and jumped out to an early 5-1 lead in the decider.
Graham did not give in and won the next three games, but McCarthy fought back and captured the set 6-4 on an overhead winner on a deciding deuce point.
“She picked up her level quite a bit toward the end and she was going to make me earn the last few points. She wasn’t going to give anything away,” McCarthy said. “I lost a few really close games and that was unfortunate, but at the end of the day, I was able to still get it done.”
In the final match of the evening, No. 4 Harris lost to No. 11 Jones 7-5, 1-6, 7-6(4). The Melbourne, Australia native recovered from down 1-4 to notch the first set at five games apiece, but Jones won the next two games for the set win. Harris controlled the second set, but fell just short in the third-set tiebreaker to keep the Blue Devils from a singles sweep.
Duke won the outright ACC regular-season title Sunday at noon with a 7-0 sweep against Virginia Tech (12-11, 3-11) at home after honoring Harris and Rebecca Smaller on Senior Day. The Blue Devils will begin play in the conference tournament as the top seed in the quarterfinals Friday morning at 9.
“The win tonight in and of itself was the first time since I’ve been here at Duke that we’ve beaten UNC, so it’s a great confidence boost for us and I think it just validates everything that we’ve been working towards this season,” McCarthy said. “We’re in there with every single top-five team, and we have a shot at both ACCs and NCAAs.”
This article was updated Sunday afternoon to include the result of Duke's match against the Hokies.