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Duke men's tennis season comes to end with narrow defeat in NCAA opener

<p>Nicolas Alvarez snapped a streak of four consecutive losses Saturday.</p>

Nicolas Alvarez snapped a streak of four consecutive losses Saturday.

After a disappointing end to the ACC tournament, Duke was sent out to California for the opening round of the NCAA tournament, where the Blue Devils looked to turn things around this weekend.

Unfortunately, their season came to an end in a back-and-forth, hard-fought match where Duke battled to the bitter end. 

The Blue Devils fell 4-3 to Ole Miss Saturday afternoon at Taube Family Tennis Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Rebels grabbed the doubles point and took an early 2-0 lead before Duke rallied to take a brief 3-2 advantage, but Ole Miss finished strong, winning the final two singles matches and advancing to take on Stanford in the next round. 

The doubles point was representative of the match overall, as the Blue Devils got out to an early lead behind a win from No. 48 juniors Nicolas Alvarez and Catalin Mateas on Court 1. That duo moved to 6-0 on the season against ranked opponents and ended the year winning seven straight matches for Duke. The Rebels fought back, though, claiming wins on Courts 2 and 3 to secure the doubles point and take an early advantage. 

“Doubles, we played great at one, but didn’t play that good at two or three,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “It was a little nerves early on, we didn’t execute in some situations.”

No. 19 Alvarez led the comeback in singles after sophomore Nick Stachowiak lost 6-3, 6-4 on Court 2. The redshirt junior beat No. 45 Gustav Hansson 6-3, 6-4, coming back from 2-0 down to begin the second set to clinch the match. The win snapped a four-match losing streak for Alvarez. This was quickly followed by wins on Courts 5 and 6, as freshman Sean Sculley rolled to an easy 6-2, 6-2 win and junior Ryan Dickerson had little trouble coasting to a 6-2, 6-3 win that gave Duke (16-14) a 3-2 lead for the day with the final two singles matches in progress. 

“Nico, overall, has had a great season,” Smith said. “He just had a couple tough matches heading into this one and he’s dealt with some injuries off and on, but overall he’s had a tremendous season for us. He had a really good week and a half of practice...we felt he was really prepared and fit and he beat a really good player in Hansson.”

The final two matches of the day proved decisive for Ole Miss (15-12), as the Rebels prevailed in a pair of three-set battles. Mateas fell on Court 3, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, as the junior struggled with a back injury in the second set that ultimately helped tilt the match in Ole Miss' favor. That tied the overall match 3-3 and brought all the attention to Court 4.

Sophomore Robert Levine looked overwhelmed initially, losing the first set before battling back to take the second set to a tiebreaker, which he won to force a final decisive set to determine the winner. But Levine couldn’t keep up the momentum and was swept out of the match, as it finished 6-2, 6-7 (1), 6-0. That win clinched the victory for the Rebels. 

“Robert has dealt with a wrist injury for quite a few matches in a row,” Smith said. “He’s playing with a one-handed backhand and he’s been doing a good job of going out there and battling. It was a tough matchup with a lefty who can come forward and was playing his backhand a lot, so two kind of unfortunate situations there at the end for us.”

The loss means the Blue Devils’ season will end in the first round of the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year. Duke did achieve several milestones on the season, including the program’s first win against Virginia since 2006 and its first road win against a top-16 opponent in three years when it beat N.C. State. 

Although the team portion of the season ended for the Blue Devils this weekend, the season will continue for Alvarez, who will compete in the NCAA individual championships beginning May 23. 


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