Although a storybook ending was not meant to be, Kelly Chen concluded her sophomore season advancing further than all but three players.
With a trip to the NCAA Singles Semifinals only two sets away, No. 21 Chen stormed past North Carolina’s No. 20 Sara Daavettila 6-2, 6-4 to advance to the next round. But in a tightly contested semifinal battle, the Duke sophomore fell to second-seeded Katarina Jokic 5-7, 2-6 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
“She definitely has shown with grit and determination that she played with this week, you don’t have to be the most vocal leader. You can lead by example,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said about Chen. “If we can get a team to follow the example that she had this week, it will be great.”
After notching a pair of top-10 wins earlier in the week, Chen matched up with another top-20 player, who Chen had already beaten handily. On April 21 in the ACC Championship match, Chen defeated Daavettila 6-7(1), 6-0, 6-1 at third singles.
In the opening frame Thursday night, Chen jumped out to a quick advantage as the Cerritos, Calif., native broke Daavettila twice and held serve three times. After a deciding deuce point up 5-0, which also served as set and break point, went the way of the Tar Heel, Daavettila closed the gap to 5-3.
But at 40-all on Chen’s serve the next game, the Blue Devil put Daavettila away to record the 6-3 first-set victory.
The second frame followed a similar path to the Duke player’s first set. Chen broke Daavettila in the first game, held serve in the next and then broke the North Carolina junior’s serve once again to lead 3-0.
With Chen serving on a deuce point in the next game, Daavettila began to inch back into the set with a break to go down 1-3. Chen broke right back and held serve to take a commanding 5-1 lead.
“She got off to a great start,” Ashworth said. “With the way she had expended her energy, that was important mentally and physically…. She played really aggressive and played with a lot of confidence.”
The match score of 5-1 rapidly turned into 5-2 and 5-3 and finally 5-4 before Chen served out the next game to take the second set 6-4.
Chen became just the fifth Blue Devil to advance to the singles semifinals and the first since 2014 when Duke junior Ester Goldfeld fell to current WTA No. 33 Danielle Collins playing for Virginia in the semifinals.
While Chen’s match with Daavettila brought along a familiar face, her semifinal match against Jokic did not. Chen had not play Georgia’s top-line player in singles across her two seasons until Friday evening.
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But the preparation for the two matches didn’t deviate much.
“We had the same routine. She was doing some pool workouts with our athletic trainer in the morning trying to loosen up,” Ashworth said. “Then she was warming up with [associate head coach] Matt [Mannasse] and [volunteer assistant coach] Mark [Watt]…. She was as prepared as she possibly could be.”
Like she did the day before, Chen broke Jokic to open up the match on court three and then held serve to take a 2-0 lead. After a pair of holds, Jokic had to save break points to avoid a 1-4 deficit. On the deuce point, Jokic got the break back en route to four straight games.
Serving for the opening frame, Jokic could not hold serve and Chen responded with two games of her own to knot the set at five apiece. The Bulldog sophomore took the final two games to win the first set 7-5.
After winning four of the final six games of the first set, Jokic surged out to a 4-1 lead in the second to position herself close to a trip to the finals. On a deuce point, only five points away from a Jokic victory, Chen won a crucial point to close Jokic’s lead to 4-2.
On a deciding point in the next game to determine if the second set would go back on serve or Jokic would lead 5-2, Jokic put herself only one game away. In the next game, Jokic won three out of the first four points to take the 15-40 lead on Chen’s serve.
On the first of potentially three match points, a long rally between Chen and Jokic ended with a missed shot by Chen that flew past the baseline.
After more than a week of matches from the team championship through the singles draw, Chen finished off a sophomore campaign that yielded her best tennis at the end.
“She knew that she was not just representing herself, but our team, our program and our school,” Ashworth said. “She has the ability to one of the best players in the country.”
After the USTA National Campus served as the site for both the team and individual competitions, the final NCAA Tennis event of the year will move to Stillwater, Okla., next year to be hosted by Oklahoma State. The event will then return to Orlando, Fla., in 2021 before moving north to Champaign, Ill., hosted by Illinois in 2022.
“It’s a great facility for the size of that tournament. It’s a huge undertaking,” Ashworth said. “Having the support staff that they did, with the practice courts right there… you leave there excited about the possibility of being back there in two years. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and couldn’t have asked for more out of it.”