In tennis, sometimes the final few points on the brink of victory are the most difficult.
In the waning minutes before the clock struck midnight, fourth-seeded Duke knocked off fourth-seeded South Carolina 4-1 to advance to the Final Four. Behind a strong opening on the doubles, the Blue Devils won four of the six first sets and did not relinquish their lead en route to the victory under the lights at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. Duke was the only lower seed on the women’s side to win and the only team to win both the doubles point and the dual match.
After the Georgia-Vanderbilt quarterfinal match went the distance, the Blue Devils took the court and jumped out the early advantage that would pay dividends down the road.
At third doubles, Duke freshmen duo of Maria Mateas and Margaryta Bilokin broke their opponent’s serve in the second game to seize an early 3-0 advantage. That led quickly turned to 5-1 and eventually 6-2 as the Blue Devil pair kicked off the doubles scoring.
The path towards victory for the other two Duke tandems was not as clear cut. Senior Ellyse Hamlin and sophomore Kelly Chen saw a 1-3 deficit after the first round of serves against South Carolina’s third-ranked pairing of Mia Horvit and Ingrid Martins. But the country’s No. 47 duo regrouped and went on to win the final fives to clinch the doubles point.
“It’s been huge all year,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said at the USTA postgame press conference. “We made some switches with our doubles and we weren’t happy with it, we came down here to the National Campus and switched our doubles teams around and we’ve played good doubles since then. It’s something we rely on and we count on.”
No. 24 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Meible Chi led 5-4 at second doubles as the doubles point was won on the adjacent court.
With a 1-0 lead already in their pocket, the Blue Devils needed to win only three of the six singles matches to move onto to Saturday’s semifinal action.
The prospects of a victory looked to be promising at the conclusion of the six first sets. The Blue Devils took four of the six courts and looked to be on their way to a trip to their second consecutive Final Four.
On court three, No. 21 Chen took the first set 6-2 against South Carolina’s No. 81 Mia Horvit. Just before Chen’s set victory, McCarthy broke Davies serve at 1-1 and did not drop a game for the rest of the set at singles four.
Over on court one, No. 11 Mateas lost the first set to No. 4 Ingrid Martins 2-6 and Bilokin fell to Gamecock Rachel Rohrabacher 3-6 in the sixth singles position.
Split two-two so far on the singles side, the remaining two matches came down to the wire. After being down 4-5 on serve in the opening frame, No. 33 Chi knotted the match up on her serve, broke No. 17 Paige Cline’s serve and served out for a 7-5 win.
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Hamlin’s path was a little different as the senior was broken while serving at 4-4, but recovered to break back to even the set at 5 apiece. Two more breaks of serve sent the set to a tiebreaker in which Hamlin won 7-5.
Now only three second-set victories away from taking the dual match, two of Duke’s veteran players used their momentum of closing out the first set to put the Blue Devils ahead for good.
Although McCarthy lost the service game to open the second frame, she won the next three games to jump out to go up a break. The Cary, N.C., native then put her team on the board once again with a 6-3 second set victory.
The next match to conclude was Mateas’ match on the top court. Martins’ strong play from the first set continued over to the second as she took the match 6-2, 6-1 to bring the dual match score to 2-1 in favor of the Blue Devils.
That small deficit would increase as Chi breezed through her second set and earned a 7-5, 6-0 win to put Duke one match away from victory.
The Blue Devil’s victory looked to be coming to a close at the third singles position as Chen held serve to go up 5-4. Off of Horvit’s serve, the Cerritos, Calif., native won the first two points to position herself two points away from a win. But Horvit hit the line on two consecutive points to tie up the set. The South Carolina senior took the final two games to win the second set 7-5 as Chen looked to be tiring.
Hamlin was also close to victory on her court as she was only five points away from a victory towards the end of her second set. After going down 0-3 to start the second set, the Duke senior won a deciding deuce point to begin her climb back to even the set. Then at 4-4 on another deuce, Hamlin lost the point to Silvia Chinellato. South Carolina took the set 6-4.
The match would then need to be decided by the third sets in the third, fifth and sixth singles spots. Duke only needed one of the three deciding sets, but South Carolina required all three to advance.
As Chen’s and Hamlin’s second sets were winding down, Bilokin had already started her third set after she won the evened the match with a 7-5 win. The freshman held serve to go up 3-2 and then broke Rohrabacher in the next game to go up 4-2. After holding serve, the New Canaan, Conn., native won the third point of the next game to be one point away from clinching the match.
Rohrabacher won the next three points to set up a deciding deuce point. On match point, Bilokin hit four backhands after the return before Rohrabacher hit an inside-in forehand down the line and came forward to the net. Bilokin then gave Rohrabacher a forehand volley returned to her backhand and then a backhand volley which sailed long for the Duke victory.
“I was looking at the scoreboard a little bit. I wasn’t supposed to, but I was, and I saw the other matches were in the third set,” Bilokin said. “So I knew it might be up to me, and I did my best to try to stay in there.”
The freshman was swarmed by her teammates who ran across Hamlin’s court to celebrate a trip to the semifinals.
The remaining two courts were left unfinished as Chen led 3-2 and Hamlin trailed 1-4.
The Blue Devils will face top-seeded Georgia Saturday in Orlando. The Bulldogs came from behind to defeat Vanderbilt 4-3 in a lengthy match. Duke knocked off Georgia 4-3 last season at the ITA National Indoors to advance to the semifinals.
“They had a long match like we did. As I’ve told them before, after each match we’ve played, we’re now one of four who have a chance,” Ashworth said. “Now we want to do everything we can to take advantage of the opportunity, no matter who it is.”