The Blue Devils were prepared to take the court for the first time last Friday. But with Hurricane Florence in the picture, the annual James Bonk Invitational was canceled and will not be rescheduled.
As a result, Duke will see its first match play Friday morning at the Furman Invitational in Greenville, S.C. Senior Kaitlyn McCarthy and sophomore Ema Lazic will be the only two Blue Devils to make their season debut Sept. 21-23. But McCarthy and Lazic are not the only two players to hit the court for an official match. Freshman Maria Mateas is playing in a professional tournament in California.
No. 84 McCarthy has not played in a match since May and will benefit from extended match play. On the other hand, Lazic played in four professional tournaments over the course of the summer. The London native qualified for two ITF $15,000 level tournaments and made it to the singles Round of 16 in both appearances. On the doubles side, the sophomore advanced to the quarterfinals twice—both times to the draw’s top-seeded doubles pairing.
“The more matches that we can play, the better off that we are. Rather than just practice sets out here, [we’re] putting them actually against someone else and seeing where we are,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “It’s been a while since they’ve put on a Duke shirt and represented the school, so for both of them, it’s a great opportunity this weekend.
Last season, McCarthy finished with records of 28-11 in singles and 33-9 in doubles. Lazic notched four singles and another four doubles victories in her first season wearing the blue and white.
McCarthy and Lazic will pair up in the few matches that they will play on the doubles end. McCarthy is currently ranked as part of the No. 1 doubles duo in the country alongside classmate Ellyse Hamlin. Ashworth believes that both of his players will play in four singles matches to go along with three doubles contests.
The Blue Devils may not have participated in this invitational if not for the cancellation of the Bonk Invitational. But with no match play to date, McCarthy and Lazic will begin their individual fall seasons one week later.
“The fall gives us the luxury a little bit to hold someone out. [No. 31] Meible [Chi] was going to play this weekend, but we decided to hold her out and let her wait for another week for the All-American tournament out in California,” Ashworth said. “In the spring, we don’t really have that luxury because we’re playing, playing, playing. My number one goal is to make sure we’re 100 percent healthy come Jan. 1. So, any little nagging thing now, I’d rather have them take the time and keep up their conditioning, keep up their weight workouts and make sure we’re healthy to go when our main season starts.”
Although sophomore No. 12 Kelly Chen is not playing in South Carolina this weekend, she is coming off a weekend at the ITF $25,000 professional tournament in Lubbock, Texas. On Texas Tech’s home courts, the Cerritos, Calif., native advanced to the third round of qualifying and eventually fell in three sets to Stanford’s No. 10 Michaela Gordon 6-4, 2-6, 3-6.
“With Kelly, I think she learned a little bit about herself as far as how she been practicing. It was a good result, but there’s no way she should be happy at all. She had opportunities to win and… [Gordon is] someone that she could definitely play again this fall,” Ashworth said. “The biggest thing is to learn from that. It was the first time that we could see her on the court since May.”
Finally, to round out the Blue Devils' tennis in the near future, No. 1 newcomer Mateas will travel to Templeton, Calif., for the main draw of the ITF $60,000. The Braintree, Mass., native is currently ranked No. 292 in the world on the WTA circuit and won the ITF $25,000 in Fort Worth, Texas in early August. Early in September, Mateas was one victory away from qualifying for the WTA Tournoi de Québec main draw.
“It’s just a different kind of mindset, a different kind of mentality. She still has to get used to the pressure of playing for Duke and playing for her teammates. That’s something that she’ll gain out at the All-American tournament the week after the pro tournament next week,” Ashworth said. “Her ultimate goal is professional tennis.”
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College tennis players are allowed to play in professional events given they register as amateur players. Mateas can raise her ranking by also playing for Duke. At the same time, having players in professional tournaments helps in future recruiting for the Blue Devils.
No. 57 senior Ellyse Hamlin and sophomore Hannah Zhao round out Duke's roster for the fall slate. Both returning players will have ample opportunities to improve before the traditional dual-match format gets underway Jan. 12 against Oklahoma State.
“People look good in practice, but you’re playing a little bit freer with no pressure. I’m happy with where we are from a conditioning standpoint,” Ashworth said. “A lot times, people come back and they’ve taken the summer off and they haven’t really done what they needed to do to be ready to play. But we came out from the first day, we’ve been ready to work and ready to play and are eager to get better.”