Although the Blue Devils saw solid individual performances throughout their fall slate, losing Nicolas Alvarez in the offseason has left questions surrounding Duke's depth in the upper courts.
Coming off a win against Elon, the Blue Devils turn to Arizona State for a chance to put those questions to rest.
Duke will host No. 24 Arizona State Friday at 6 p.m. at the Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center. Although senior Catalin Mateas and junior Nick Stachowiak have held down their courts on singles, the Blue Devils best be wary of the Sun Devils' tenacious tandems on the doubles courts and consistent play on Courts 3 through 5.
"We didn't play our best against Elon," Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. "We got to a slow start in doubles so we were playing from behind the entire match. In a way it's nice to face that adversity.... There are times you're going to lose the doubles point and bounce back, and it was nice that we were able to do it.... The guys are feeling a bit more comfortable. I'm just excited to play a great Arizona State team."
In Duke's recent win against the Phoenix, the Blue Devils (1-0) came out to a slow start and had to recover in the singles courts, something Duke can't afford against a disciplined Arizona State squad.
Although senior Jason Lapidus and sophomore Sean Sculley managed to grind out a solid 6-4 win, the Blue Devils found themselves in an early hole due to the senior duo of Mateas and Vincent Lin struggling to find a rhythm on Court 3. Although Stachowiak and junior Spencer Furman put together a valiant effort against Elon's top duo, the pair of Duke juniors were unable to close out their final games to secure the doubles point.
In contrast, Arizona State's doubles tandems have proven themselves against some of the top squads in the nation, earning early points against No. 3 Mississippi State and No. 16 Illinois. Boasting the No. 22 duo in the nation of sophomores Tim Ruehl and Andrea Bolla, the Sun Devils have consistently put opponents at early disadvantages in the battle for the doubles point off dominant play on Court 3. Coupled with tandems on Courts 1 and 2 that have proven themselves against stiff competition over long sets, and the Blue Devils may find themselves fighting from behind early.
"[Doubles] is something we work on almost every single day," Smith said. "This week we put in some time. The big thing is trying to play free, trying to play aggressive, play relaxed, and play on our terms as much as possible."
To compensate for weaknesses in doubles, Duke will instead need to post up quick wins in the upper singles courts to build momentum back. Stachowiak has established himself as a solid Court 1 contender, as seen in a recent three-set victory against Elon's Felipe Sarrasague where the junior Blue Devil swept the deciding set 6-0. Coupled with solid play from Sculley and Furman, Duke's best opportunity to battle back will come against Arizona State's top competition.
"[Stachowiak] came in as a freshman and has been the team MVP, voted by the team the last two years," Smith said. "He has never been consistently at the top. He has been rock solid [Court] 3, 4, sometimes 2 player, and has always been one of those guys that did a good job beating the players he was supposed to beat but sometimes struggled with the guys that were ranked a little bit higher.... To beat a player like Felipe in the decider, obviously a huge match and a huge deal for Elon to beat Duke, there was a lot of pressure on Nick. He came through as strongly as he possibly could so I think that gave him a lot of confidence."
However, where the Sun Devils may be able to take the Blue Devils by surprise will be on the lower courts. Bolla and junior Nathan Ponwith have both put up convincing wins against ranked opposition and will likely play Lapidus and junior Duke walk-on Samir Agadi on Courts 5 and 6, depending on the depth of the Blue Devil roster. Although Lapidus has plenty of experience playing against tough competition, the Durham, N.C., native had a milquetoast showing in the fall and has yet to earn a major singles win for the season.
If Duke can stun the Sun Devils (0-0) and put together a solid showing in doubles, the Blue Devils may just show that they are a squad ready to upend expectations in the ACC.
"We're trying to keep things simple," Smith said. "Work on one match at a time, try to get better. We preach to the guys to focus on the things you can control because there are so many variables you can't control... You're going to win some matches, lose some matches, but you want to win in the right way and lose in the right way. We have such a loaded schedule with so many top teams and we view them as great opportunities."
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