Coming off a stretch of five ranked opponents over its past six matches, Duke women's tennis has more than proved that it is a team gunning for the top slot in the nation.
Standing in the way of that spot? A bitter rival that has already given the Blue Devils trouble this season.
No. 3 Duke will make the short trip to Chapel Hill looking for revenge against No. 2 North Carolina Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels clashed just three weeks ago at the ITA Team Indoors tournament, where North Carolina blanked Duke 4-0. If the Blue Devils want to return the favor at their rivals' courts, Duke's entire roster must stay locked in to counter the Tar Heels' depth on all courts.
"We have to make sure we're fighting and competing," Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. "We learned a lot from competing against them just a couple weeks ago in that we need to be more in attack mode and have more of an aggressive mindset. Those are things that we've been trying to simulate in practice and the matches since then."
When the Tobacco Road rivals first met, North Carolina (16-1, 4-0 in the ACC) shot off to an early lead thanks to strong start in doubles. Although the Blue Devil No. 18 tandem of Ellyse Hamlin and Kaitlyn McCarthy were able to knock off the Tar Heels' then-No. 5 duo of Makenna Jones and Cameron Morra, the rest of Duke's roster struggled. Since then, the Blue Devils have only managed to grab the doubles point once in its last three meets. In a match that will likely come down to the wire, Duke can not afford to give the Tar Heels an early advantage, especially on their home courts.
"We've been playing a lot of doubles," McCarthy said. "We've been playing a lot more doubles in practice since we've played [North Carolina] at indoors a couple weeks ago. That practice is going to show on Wednesday. I'm excited to see how it goes."
However, even if the Blue Devils (10-1, 3-0) may have a weak spot in singles, Duke more than makes up for it on the singles courts.
From Courts 1-6, the Blue Devils are brimming with talent. No. 18 Meible Chi boasts just one loss to the season since the start of dual meet play, holding down Courts 2 and 3 with ease. Against the Tar Heels, Chi held her own against then-No. 15 Sara Daavetilla, leaving the match unresolved in three sets.
On Court 1, freshman phenom Maria Mateas will likely give North Carolina a run for its money. Boasting a resume of impressive wins through the fall—including a handy 6-1, 6-4 win over then No. 2 Jones—Mateas has shown that despite her age, she has a wealth of experience against tough competition. However, through dual meet play, the Chapel Hill native has hit a bit of a skid, losing four of her last five matches and going 4-4-2 since the start of the semester. If Mateas can bounce back against either Jones or No. 5 Alexa Graham, the young Blue Devil will prove she has what it takes to take on some of the toughest players in the NCAA.
To get a win in Chapel Hill, Duke will need production from every one of its players. McCarthy, Hamlin and freshman Margaryta Bilokin have held Courts 4-6 admirably for the Blue Devils, oftentimes being the difference makers in tight matches such as Duke's 4-3 thriller against then-No. 18 Miami. Likewise, North Carolina's Chloe Ouellet-Pizer, Alle Sanford and Jessie Aney have all come through for the Tar Heels when they've needed them most, ensuring the second—and likely not final—Tobacco Road matchup of the season will be one to remember.
"We're two of the more talented teams in the country," Ashworth said. "It just so happens we're eight miles apart... We try to bring the best out of each other in all aspects. We stand in each others way in the goals we have for our programs so we want to represent what we stand for and what we do the best that we can."
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