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Duke men's tennis travels to the Prairie State to take on a pair of Big Ten foes

<p>The Blue Devils have struggled in Illinois of late.</p>

The Blue Devils have struggled in Illinois of late.

After a tough loss to No. 6 North Carolina to finish off the ITA Kickoff Weekend, Duke men’s tennis will look to rebound with a trip through the Prairie State this weekend.

The Blue Devils will first travel to Champaign, Ill. Friday to take on No. 15 Illinois before heading 160 miles north to Evanston, Ill. in a matchup with Northwestern. This marks the fifth consecutive year Duke will face the two teams back-to-back early in the season. But after sweeping both squads in the 2014-15 campaign, the Blue Devils have managed to win only a single total match against either team since.

“Illinois is our longest standing home-away nonconference match so we obviously know them well, and we have also played Northwestern the past few years,” head coach Ramsay Smith said. “We have had some exciting matches recently with both teams and playing them on the road is an extra challenge that we love to embrace. Both teams return a lot of key players and have added some new pieces as well.”

Last year, Duke (3-2) lost to the ranked Fighting Illini 1-6 before sweeping the Wildcats 4-0 two days later. Although Illinois (0-0) lost its top two singles players—Aleks Vukic and Aron Hiltzik—the team still returns six other letterwinners, including 44th-ranked junior Aleks Kovacevic, who was honored with Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week on Jan. 22, as well as 10th-ranked sophomore Alex Brown. 

Kovacevic received the honor after finishing 4-2 individually at the MLK Invitational, the Fighting Illini’s last fall tune-up tournament before the start of the spring season. His performance included a dominant, straight-set win over the No. 2 singles player in the country—Georgia’s Jan Sielinski. 

Northwestern, meanwhile, returns all its starters from its meeting with the Blue Devils last February. Anchored by sophomore Nick Brooke’s upset of No. 77 Brandon Laubser, the Wildcats (1-4) are coming off their first win of the season against Auburn and hope to improve upon their 9-17 record a year ago. That disappointing finish broke the program’s streak of five consecutive 20-win seasons. 

A big key for Duke this weekend is going to be its performance in the doubles sector. Led by the juniors duo of Nick Stachowiak and Spencer Furman—who notched the Blue Devils’ first doubles win over North Carolina since the 2015 ACC tournament—getting that early point will be essential in the momentum of each match.

“One of our primary areas of focus recently has been our doubles, and we have made some big strides by winning the doubles point in our last three matches, including a very good UNC team last weekend,” Smith said. “We are working hard to continue to improve and fine tune our doubles. In our two losses I thought our singles dropped off a bit as we got into second sets so the focus is to finish strong in our singles and not get discouraged if we lose some tough first sets.”

Following the expedition through Illinois, Duke will head to Orlando, Fla. to take on Tennessee at USTA’s National Campus. The match will be broadcast on the Tennis Channel. But before that, Smith hopes to use this weekend as an opportunity to improve as a team and prepare for a long road ahead.

“Our goals are simple,” Smith said. “We are taking one match at a time and preparing as well as possible for every singles match, and then leaving everything on the court once we step between the lines. It is a long season and we are constantly looking to improve match by match. Every match is a great opportunity and this weekend is a good example of that.”