Three forehands followed by a fundamental shot she’s practiced countless times was all senior Kaitlyn McCarthy needed on match point to put the Blue Devils on top. That overhead winner in sunny Miami resulted in McCarthy throwing her hands up in excitement.
She turned to her seven teammates lined up with junior Meible Chi on the left and freshman Margaryta Bilokin alongside McCarthy’s doubles partner and classmate Ellyse Hamlin on the right. They ran in her direction as the come-from-behind dual match victory was set in stone.
The defending ACC regular season champions opened up their conference slate this past weekend and the two dual matches did not go as smoothly as last season. The Blue Devils took the pair of home dual matches against Florida State and Miami 6-1 in consecutive meetings last March.
Duke grinded through Friday’s 5-2 victory against the No. 12 Seminoles and Sunday’s 4-3 win against the No. 18 Hurricanes. In both matches, the home team took the doubles point, but the Blue Devils took control of the singles play later in order to clinch the perfect start to the conference season.
Before Sunday’s match, Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth switched up the doubles pairings as freshman Maria Mateas sat out and sophomore Hannah Zhao paired with classmate Kelly Chen at the second position. Chi and Bilokin rounded out the lineup as McCarthy and Hamlin headed the lineup.
“We switched our doubles teams around today to try to find some energy,” Ashworth told GoDuke.com after Sunday’s victory. “We thought Hannah Zhao would give us a little more energy. Nothing against Maria, we just thought the combination of Kelly and Hannah would give us energy. We had the energy but we didn’t execute.”
After falling 4-6 in doubles, No. 26 Chen was quick to get on the scoreboard Sunday afternoon down in Coral Gables, Fla. The Cerritos, Calif., native only gave up one game en route to a 6-0, 6-1 win to even the match at one point apiece.
No. 22 Mateas then fell to Miami’s No. 7 Estela Perez-Somarriba 0-6, 4-6 and No. 124 Hamlin registered her first singles loss all season after winning eight in a row to open up her senior campaign.
These two results placed Duke (9-1, 2-0 in the ACC) on the brink of losing to the Hurricanes (6-3, 0-2). With their backs against the wall with little margin of error, the Blue Devils needed No. 18 Chi, McCarthy and Bilokin to all win in order to return home with two weekend wins.
Chi and Bilokin both took the opening sets in tiebreakers. Chi then brought the match score to 2-3 after winning her second set 6-4. In only her second conference singles match, Bilokin stormed to a 6-1 win in the second to even the score and send the match to the distance.
“In singles, that was just a gritty, tough ACC road match. We didn’t play great and it took us a bit to get used to the conditions,” Ashworth said. “It was the first time we’ve played in 85-degree weather and wind. Kelly’s win was huge to get us on the board quick.”
It all came down to a senior and the Cary, N.C., native needed to go three sets. After No. 108 McCarthy lost the first frame 2-6, her match was sent to a tiebreaker to decide the second set. McCarthy lost the first two points and was only five points away from defeat. But the senior regrouped and won the next seven points to take the second set.
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In the third set, McCarthy went up 2-0 and then 4-2 before setting up a break and match point up 5-4 on her opponent’s serve. After three forehands, McCarthy charged the net as Miami’s Carla Girbau chipped a return up for a routine overhead winner to clinch the win.
“Kaitlyn has been great for us for four years in dual matches, especially in conference play,” Ashworth said. “I told her that I wanted her to fist pump her teammates every point… to look at them and do everything you can to involve the team because it was a team effort. She wasn’t alone. She did a great job of setting an example of what needs to be done if you’re the last person on the court. You have to play to win and not just hope to win.”
Against Florida State (9-2, 1-1), Duke jumped out to a brief doubles advantage as the No. 18 senior duo of McCarthy and Hamlin won 6-2. But No. 56 freshman pair of Mateas and Bilokin lost and the team’s third doubles tandem of Chi and sophomore Kelly Chen fell to give Miami the 1-0 match lead.
“I don’t think anyone was happy with our doubles play. We came out and missed way too many balls,” Ashworth told GoDuke Friday. “We let Florida State dictate the doubles and two and three and we can’t do that against a very good team.”
On the singles side, Bilokin played fast and quickly won in straight sets 6-1, 6-3 on court five. Mateas was next in line for the victory as the freshman knocked off No. 32 Carly Touly 6-2, 6-3.
With the 2-1 match lead, Duke turned to Chen’s third singles match to move the needle more in the Blue Devil’s favor. The sophomore earned a close 7-4 first-set tiebreak victory before taking the second frame 6-3.
The final three matches all were decided in third sets. Chi lost the tight first set 5-7 before cruising to the 6-1 second set win. On court four, McCarthy took the opening frame 7-5 and lost the second one 3-6. Over at the final singles slot, Hamlin set up the decider after a 6-4, 3-6 result.
The Blue Devils needed just one of the three final sets to clinch their first ACC win of the season. That clinching match point came via Chi, who took the third 6-3. McCarthy then lost and Hamlin closed out the 5-2 victory with a 6-4 result.
“We were playing outside, under the lights for the first time in months and it could have been really easy to let those little things get to us,” Ashworth said. “There was a lot of fight and emotion and if we can put that together with some good doubles, good things can happen.”
Duke returns home to host No. 31 Georgia Tech Friday evening at Ambler Tennis Stadium before making the short trek down Tobacco Road for a rematch with undefeated No. 2 North Carolina next Wednesday.