History was made when the Blue Devils and the Cowgirls stepped on the court Saturday afternoon.
In its first dual match of the season, No. 4 Duke used the doubles point to catapult itself to a 5-2 win against No. 9 Oklahoma State. It was the first dual match in NCAA history that was played outside of the United States, as the match was held at Windsor Academy in Albany, The Bahamas.
After a fall slate that included freshman Maria Mateas’ runner-up performance at the ITA All-American Championships, the Blue Devils traveled south to take on a top-10 team in their season opener, something that head coach Jamie Ashworth said he rarely does with his team.
“[Oklahoma State is] going to end up top-five or six in the country, for sure,” Ashworth said. “That was a high-level, very competitive first match of the year for both of us.”
For the opening doubles match of the spring, Duke sent out a familiar combination at the second slot with the senior duo of Ellyse Hamlin and Kaitlyn McCarthy. Hamlin did not play this fall, and the last time she and her partner played together was in their NCAA individual doubles semifinal trip last May.
But the veteran tandem came out and knocked off the Cowgirls’ Marina Guinart and Catherine Gulihur 6-1 to place the Blue Devils one doubles victory away from their first point of the season.
“They came out and played a great match, not a lot of free points. Ellyse was all over the net. Kaitlyn was swinging and playing free.” Ashworth said. “They picked up right where they left off in May.... It was a good lift for everybody. I didn’t really know what to expect.”
After junior Meible Chi and sophomore Kelly Chen fell to Tamara Arnold and Bunyawi Thamchaiwat 4-6 in the third position, the doubles point came down to two Duke players who had never played in a collegiate dual match before.
After Ashworth said they became close on this international trip, Mateas and classmate Margaryta Bilokin took on the No. 18 duo Sofia Blanco and Lisa Marie Rioux.
Bilokin, the current ITF No. 40 ranked junior, joined the team this month and along with Mateas, knocked off Oklahoma State’s top doubles pair 6-4 after being down 2-3.
With the doubles point on the scoreboard, the Cowgirls (0-1) grabbed the momentum as No. 40 Guinart defeated Bilokin 6-3, 6-1 and No. 73 Blanco beat No. 58 McCarthy 6-2, 6-2.
After Oklahoma State took the 2-1 lead, the Blue Devils (1-0) were perfect the rest of the way and swept the first three courts as well as the sixth court for the neutral-site victory.
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No. 10 Chi and the Cowgirls’ Thamchaiwat played a very even opening set. Chi led 2-1 before Thamchaiwat won the next two games to take the 3-2 lead. The Duke junior led 6-5 before taking the first set in a 7-4 tiebreaker decision. Chi quickly controlled the second set and won 6-1 to even the match score at two apiece.
“Meible is as clean of a ball striker as we have. When she’s getting balls in her strike zone, she’s really tough to beat and if she’s serving well, she’s really tough to beat,” Ashworth said. “More than her winning, but her coming back after they lost a tough doubles match.... That was a great win and a win that Meible should be really proud of.”
In her first career dual match, No. 8 Mateas was ready to go from the first serve as the freshman jumped out to a 4-1 lead and eventually took the first set 6-2. The second set against Rioux ended 6-3 with the same result as the first, a win for Mateas at the top of the lineup.
“They’re both going to play a huge role in what we want to accomplish this year,” Ashworth said about Mateas and Bilokin. “We talked to them [Friday] about it being a different kind of pressure than they’re used to. Even in the fall with Maria, they’re used to playing for themselves. A match like today is invaluable in our journey to May.”
After the efficient doubles victory, Hamlin, in the sixth singles position, was down 4-1 in the first set before coming back to take the opening frame 7-5 from Arnold. The Blue Devil senior clinched the dual match with a 6-3 second-set win for the team’s third singles win of the afternoon.
With the match result already decided, No. 37 Chen and Oklahoma State’s No. 21 Katie Stresnakova sent their match into a deciding 10-point super tiebreaker after Chen took the first set 7-6 (1) and Stresnakova won the second frame 6-3.
After saving a match point in front of her team on the adjacent court, Chen knocked off her ranked opponent 12-10 in the decider to conclude the international match.
Duke will return home to face Elon Jan. 23. No. 3 North Carolina defeated the Phoenix 6-1 Saturday. The Blue Devils swept Elon last season 7-0 in their season opener. But before that match takes place, there are areas where Ashworth can see improvement with over a week of practice.
“Our conditioning has to get better. I don’t think we’re physically ready and able to play three matches in three days at a tremendously high level,” Ashworth said. “Finish points when we have opportunities. We did a good job of controlling the beginning of points, but then we let the foot off the gas a little bit.”