Perseverance in the face of adversity can define a team. The Blue Devils were three second sets away from a second road loss in a row Friday, but Duke then showed why it remains atop the ACC entering the final weekend of the regular season.
The No. 4 Blue Devils won their final two road contests of the season as they traveled north one last time. Duke knocked off Syracuse 4-2 Friday evening and then swept Pittsburgh 7-0 Sunday afternoon. At the Drumlins Tennis Club in Syracuse, N.Y., Duke beat an Orange team that recently earned a victory against No. 3 Georgia Tech recently. Then, the Blue Devils traveled south to the Oxford Athletic Club in Wexford, Pa., to defeat the Panthers.
Duke put itself in prime position to win the ACC regular-season title outright next weekend if it takes down North Carolina, but the Orange did not make it easy. Known for their fast indoor courts, Syracuse got off to a strong start in doubles. Duke fell 2-6 on both Courts 1 and 3 to sustain an early deficit.
“[Syracuse] hit the ball so hard. The courts are really fast indoors and they just knocked us back right from the start. I don’t think we ever really truly recovered from that,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “They just came out and did a good job of playing in their own facility with the fast courts and not a lot of space.... Hats off to them. They’ve had some really good, quality wins in that center.”
On the singles end, Syracuse continued its momentum from doubles and jumped out to an early advantage. After the first sets on all six courts were complete, the Orange (15-6, 7-6 in the ACC) were ahead on half of the courts and in a position to take the home victory.
After sophomore Meible Chi suffered her first singles loss 4-6, 4-6 since October, Syracuse was two sets away from the win. Chi’s opponent, Miranda Ramirez, continued to hit winners throughout the match en route to the victory.
“The girl from Syracuse played an unbelievable match against Meible. I said to Meible during the match, ‘if this girl can keep hitting winners and keep that up for two sets, then great job,’ and the girl was able to do that,” Ashworth said. “She wasn’t really shaken at all by that loss. She was disappointed.”
But Duke (19-2, 11-1) regrouped and did what it has done all season long: win.
“We did a really good job of fighting and competing. There was a point in the middle there of the first sets, we just said to ourselves, ‘We’re not losing this match.’ We dug our heels in and we competed and fought really well,” Ashworth said. “Syracuse played a good match. I thought we played really well and I thought we competed as well as we have all year against anybody.”
The Blue Devils took the other five second sets to flip the script. In the third singles slot, No. 91 Kaitlyn McCarthy earned a win against Sofya Golubovskaya 7-5, 7-5. Then, No. 28 Kelly Chen defeated Maria Tritou 6-4, 6-3 and No. 111 Ellyse Hamlin bested Anna Shkudun 6-2, 6-4. No. 5 Samantha Harris clinched the victory against No. 4 Gabriela Knutson 0-6, 6-4, 6-0. Freshman Hannah Zhao’s third set was left unfinished.
Duke’s strong play continued into Sunday, as the Blue Devils notched their 11th sweep of the season.
Zhao and Chi took the first doubles set 6-1 before No. 8 Hamlin and McCarthy clinched the doubles point 6-2.
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“Especially after losing in doubles the other day to Syracuse, Meible and Hannah did a great job of coming back. They’ve been clutch for us all year. It was important for them to get out to a good start today,” Ashworth said. “When Ellyse and Kaitlyn started to play aggressive, they just overpowered the team from Pittsburgh.”
The dominance continued in singles. Harris was the first Blue Devil to walk off the court victorious. The Melbourne, Australia native defeated Pittsburgh’s Gabriela Rezende efficiently 6-1, 6-2 to stamp her place in the Blue Devil history books. The win marked her 39th career ACC win and placed the senior in first place ahead of Reka Zsilinszka.
“Sam played a great first set. Ellyse played as clean of a match as she’s played in a long time,” Ashworth said. “It all bodes well, especially looking forward to what we have in the next week.”
Hamlin defeated the Panthers’ lone senior Callie Frey 6-2, 6-1, and Chen beat fellow freshman Claudia Bartolome 6-4, 6-1 in the fourth singles position to clinch the team win against Pittsburgh (6-13, 0-12).
Chi was quickly back in the win column. The Weston, Fla., native bounced back with a convincing 6-1 opening set win before narrowly taking the second frame 7-5. Chi played a clean first set and kept her errors to a minimum for another win.
In the third singles position, McCarthy was even with her Panther opponent at 3-all before she took the opening set 6-4. In the second set, the Blue Devil junior went down an early break 1-3 and 2-4 until she took the next three games to take the advantage. In the end, McCarthy won in a tiebreak 6-4, 7-6 (4).
Last on the court was the sixth singles match between Zhao and Tokyo native Natsumi Okamoto. The Duke freshman made quick work of her opponent in the first set to win 6-2. But Okamoto responded and took the second frame 7-5 when Zhao missed a backhand long to cap a lengthy rally.
In the third-set super tiebreaker, Zhao won six of the final eight points and closed it out 10-5 for her ninth ACC win of the season.
The Blue Devils finished the road conference schedule with only one loss for the second year in a row. Duke will return home for its final home weekend of the season, as the Blue Devils will meet the nation’s top team at 6 p.m. Friday before closing out the regular season at noon next Sunday.
Duke remains at the top of the conference standings alongside No. 1 North Carolina. The Blue Devils dropped the doubles point in their first meeting of the season in the semifinals of the ITA Indoor Championships Feb. 11 and went on to lose 4-1.
“The biggest thing for us is to make sure that we’re rested and we come out with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. We don’t have anything to protect. We just have to go out there and play aggressive tennis and see what happens,” Ashworth said. “We learned a lot from playing them last time, but I don’t think technically we really have to do anything. We just have to make sure we’re as fresh as we can be.”