The Blue Devils may have fallen in the semifinals of the team event last Monday, but their season did not end there. In its final two events of the season, Duke did not disappoint.
Wednesday morning marked the opening day of the NCAA individual singles tournament while the doubles draw commenced Thursday afternoon and will continue through Monday for the singles and doubles championships at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex in Winston-Salem, N.C. No. 28 Kelly Chen was on the brink of defeat, and now she is into the Round of 16 after her biggest individual victory of the season and the best win in terms of opponent’s rank since 2009.
The freshman did not get out to the start that she wanted Wednesday. Chen missed a service return cross court wide on a deuce deciding point to lose the first set 2-6.
The freshman was broken to open the second set and that early deficit turned in two breaks as Chen went down 0-4. But the Cerritos, Calif., native was not ready to give in. She broke No. 56 Levashova on a deuce point to bring her within one break at 2-4 after holding serve. Then after holding serve for a second time, Chen hit a winner down the line to even the set a four apiece. On deuce and set point, Chen hit a backhand angle shot that was out of the reach of Levashova to take the set 6-4.
In the deciding frame, there were five holds on serve before Chen broke Levashova. The Duke freshman hit a volley winner to take on deuce point to take a 5-2 lead. But after losing one match point and two breaks, the match was quickly knotted at five-all. After each player held serve, Chen took an early 4-1 lead in the tiebreaker. On match point, Levashova double faulted and Chen advanced to the Round of 32 with a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(4).
“Kelly never goes away. The one thing that she’s been consistent with all year is her ability to compete until the very end and Wednesday was no different,” Duke assistant coach Matt Manasse said. “There was a game at love-4 where her opponent gave her a couple of easy points. Kelly saw an opening and took full advantage of it and ran away with the match afterwards.”
On the other hand, No. 55 Chi quickly took her first set 6-3 and took an early lead in the second set. But her opponent, Oklahoma’s No. 41 Lily Miyazaki, bounced back to even the second frame a three apiece. Chi broke Miyazaki to love and then took two of the remaining three games for a 6-3, 6-4 straight-set victory. On match point, Miyazaki missed a backhand long after Chi’s inside-out forehand.
Although Chen faced off against a more highly ranked player in her second-round match, her start was significantly better. After Chen and North Carolina’s No. 2 Makenna Jones each held serve through the opening five games of the first, the Blue Devil broke Jones to earn a 4-2 lead. That lead turned to 5-2 when Chen connected on a backhand down the line winner on deuce point. The two rivals each held serve in the next two games as Chen took the opening frame 6-3. After Jones defended set point twice to even the game at deuce, she missed a second serve forehand return into the net.
To open the second set, Jones missed a crosscourt forehand into the net to give Chen an early break at 1-0. But Chen was immediately broken back to even the set at 1-1. This sequence repeated itself for four more games, as neither player was able to hold serve until Jones did so to take a 4-3 lead. The Duke freshman also got back to her first set serving as she took the next games to even the set at four-all.
After going down love-40 on Jones’ serve, Chen bounced back to win the next two points before the Tar Heel double faulted to send the game to deuce. On the deciding point, Chen moved Jones all over the court and finally put away a forehand crosscourt winner. The rest was history, as Chen won the final game to love for the 6-3, 6-4 victory. On match point, Chen served into the body of Jones and she missed a backhand return into the net. That victory was Duke’s first NCAA singles win over a top-two player since 2009 and extended Chen’s winning streak to 22 matches.
In Chi’s Round of 32 match, the sophomore was broken in the third game, but broke back in the fourth after Florida International’s No. 13 Andrea Lazaro missed a forehand volley wide. After a few more breaks, Lazaro won her service game to take a 5-3 opening set lead. Chi was then broken on deuce point as she hit a forehand into the net to close the first set.
Chi won the first game of the second set as Lazaro doubled faulted. In the next game, Lazaro missed a forehand return into the net on deuce point, which gave Duke sophomore a 2-0 lead. But Lazaro broke back and evened the match at 2-all. After Chi forced an error from Lazaro to break her serve once again, the Weston, Fla., missed a volley wide to tie the set again. The Panther held serve for a 4-3 lead. Chi then doubled faulted to put the match on Lazaro’s serve. On match point at 40-15, Lazaro missed the first serve. On the second serve, Chi missed a backhand into the net and lost 3-6, 3-6.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“One of Meible’s major individual goals this year was to become an All-American and by not reaching that, I think will leave a big hole,” Manasse said. “She’s going to be hungrier next year and will come back and mature as a person and a player so that she can reach that goal.”
No. 9 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin went up a break early on in the first set. The Duke tandem took a commanding 3-0 lead. But Pepperdine’s duo of No. 13 Luisa Stefani and Mayar Sherif Ahmed recovered to take the break back and go down 2-3. But McCarthy and Hamlin broke back immediately to take a 4-2 lead. The after holding serve, the Blue Devils had three break and set points to put the opening frame away. The only needed the first as McCarthy changed the direction incoming backhand down the line and hit a forehand crosscourt into the doubles alley for a 6-2 set victory.
“Kaitlyn and Ellyse were very aggressive from the baseline, dipping the ball to the opponents’ feet and not going to the lob too quickly. The Pepperdine team they played had really good volleys, but not good enough to withstand a barrage of ground strokes over and over again,” Manasse said. “I told them to continue to go big at the girls at the net, wait for them to close and then go for the lob…. They just closed the net and were the more aggressive team and got it back on track according to the game plan.”
Unlike the first set, the Blue Devils found themselves in a hole down a break 1-2. But after breaking right back, the Duke pair held serve in the next game to take back the one game lead. But the Waves went on to win the next four games including a deuce point up 5-3 for the set tying win.
“The second set just got away from them. They lost a break of serve and a couple sloppy returns and Pepperdine lifted their level of play a little bit,” Manasse said. “Between the second and third set, I don’t think that it was a huge panic. I told them, ‘Look, there’s nothing to worry about. Continue to play the same game, go after your returns, be aggressive from the baseline and close balls that are coming to the middle. That tactic will end up working in the long run.’”
In the deciding third-set super tiebreaker, McCarthy and Hamlin went up a mini break after the first point and won the next two points on their racket for a 3-0 lead. Hamlin the hit a crosscourt backhand past the Pepperdine player at the net and the Blue Devils led 4-0. After Pepperdine missed a backhand long on the next point, McCarthy missed a forehand volley into the net in Duke’s first point given up going into the changeover. But Pepperdine did not back down as they took three out of the next four points to bring the score to 6-4 and then 7-5 at the second changeover.
“It’s a first to 10 situation, and if you can stay positive and pick up your energy and commit to the game plan, you can end up on the right side of the score,” Manasse said.
Down 7-8, the Pepperdine players ran into each other and missed their overhead to set up two match points for the nation’s ninth ranked team. On match point, McCarthy hit a perfectly placed backhand to the feet of the Pepperdine player and she was unable to pick the ball up on her backhand side. The two Duke juniors congratulated themselves with a fist bump for their 6-2, 3-6, 1-0 (10-7) victory to clinch a trip to the round of 16.
The other Blue Devil pairing of Chen and Samantha Harris dropped out of the doubles draw for the same reason No. 4 seed Harris dropped out of the singles competition. The Melbourne, Australia native suffered an injury in Duke’s regular season match against the Tar Heels and battled through the injury ever since. The Duke senior made it through the team competition, but was unable to play through it any further before she begins her professional tennis career in July.
While the Blue Devil women had five invitees this week at the NCAA Individual tournaments, the men only received one entrant. No. 19 Nicolas Alvarez met Texas A&M’s No. 9 through No. 16 seed Valentin Vacherot in the first round. The Duke redshirt-junior won the first game of the match, but Vacherot recovered to take the next three games. The Aggie sophomore took the final three games of the set after Alvarez brought the match to 2-3.
The second set got out to a more even start as Alvarez and Vacherot split the opening six games for a 3-all set score. But after Alvarez was broken on serve and Vacherot won the next service game, the Blue Devil was on the brink of defeat. Alvarez held serve to bring the match to 4-5, Vacherot held on in the end. Alvarez finished off the season losing 2-6, 4-6.
Chi finished her run in the Round of 32 for the second year in a row. Chen plays Florida’s No. 9 through No. 16 seed Anna Danilina in the round of 16 tomorrow morning at 11. McCarthy and Hamlin face Clemson’s No. 21 Fernanda Navarro and Marie Leduc in the round of 16 at 12:30 p.m. This doubles matchup will be the first of the season as the Duke pairing was slotted in the second doubles position for Duke’s 7-0 victory early this season.