With severe cramping and dehydration after the team quarterfinal match last Friday, no one would have blamed Kelly Chen for not partaking in the NCAA singles individual portion this week down in Orlando, Fla. Instead, the Blue Devil did something only nine players in program history have done before.
No. 21 Chen took last Sunday off to rest as Stanford clinched its second consecutive national team championship. But she hasn’t had a day off since as the Cerritos, Calif., native won three matches in a row at the USTA National Campus to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Individual Singles Championship with wins against two top-10 opponents. Chen is just the ninth player in program history to advance to the quarterfinals and the first since 2014.
“There’s a huge contingency here of people that are helping her,” Duke associate head coach Matt Manasse said. “She feels that and is fighting and running through a wall because of it.”
In the Round of 16 against Vanderbilt No. 6 seed Fernanda Contreras, Chen fell in an early deficit. The Blue Devil trailed 2-4 in the first set and broke Contreras back, but couldn’t even the set. Contreras took the opening set 6-4.
The second set saw Contreras out with an early break as the Commodore senior led 4-1 before the serve turned back over to Chen. After two more holds, Contreras was one game away from a trip to the quarterfinals.
But after bowing out in the Round of 16 a season ago, Chen did want the season to end the same way. She held serve and then put away an overhead winner to get back on serve down 4-5.
Up 40-30 in the next game, Chen served to Contreras’ backhand. Broadcast live on the Tennis Channel, the on-court microphone picked up the net being clipped, but Contreras did not hear it and played on. Although Chen, Manasse and many of the fans behind Chen in the stands heard the serve hit the net, Chen is required by rule to call the let in order to receive another serve.
“She went to hit it and the rules state that she has to be the one to call the let. She can’t ask the umpire. She can’t play the ball. She has to call the let right away,” Manasse said. “It was just good to get clarification from the head referee as to the exact ruling and then she could move on and play the next point.”
As a result, Contreras was awarded the point to set up a 40-all deuce and match point. In the next point, Chen then hit a crosscourt forehand winner to even the set and save match point.
“She was right there honestly that whole second set. She got out to a slow start, but she knew that she had to play more aggressive. She knew she had to take her chances to come forward,” Manasse said. “Once she just started having the courage to come forward and playing more aggressive tennis, that’s when the whole match turned for her. She had unbelievable guts…. Go for the big shots and in Kelly Chen fashion, she did it in a big way.”
Chen then broke Contreras’ serve and held serve to close out even the match at one set apiece.
After taking the final five games of the second frame, Chen used her momentum to surge out to a 3-0 lead in the deciding third set. The Blue Devil broke Contreras’ serve to go up 5-2 and was one game away from victory.
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Serving for the match at 30-all, Chen served down the middle and Contreras’ slice backhand return went into the net. On match point, Chen served and attacked the net with a backhand volley down the line. All Contreras could do was get her racquet on the ball as Chen punched her ticket to the NCAA Quarterfinals.
Chen’s second round match against N.C. State’s No. 10 Anna Rogers also went the distance.
Late in the first set against Rogers, Chen hit a backhand down the line winner from inside the baseline to get the break and take a 6-5 lead in the opening frame.
On set point after a few rallies from the baseline, Chen hit a heavy topspin backhand which brought Rogers behind the doubles ally. Rogers hit the backhand crosscourt, but Chen took a few steps backwards and hit an inside-out forehand that Rogers sliced back into the net.
Then in the third game of the second set, Chen hit a crosscourt angle winner from the service line to earn a 2-1 advantage. The Cerritos, Calif., native served out the next game for a 3-1 lead. She then lost the second set 4-6.
On a deuce and game point up 2-1 in the third, Chen hit a forehand winner down the line past Rogers at the net to jump out to the 3-1 lead. At 3-3, Rogers hit a backhand slice long, which put Chen up a break at 4-3. Then after holding serve and winning the first three points of Roger’s service game, Chen needed just one more point for a victory.
Chen returned Roger’s second serve to the Wolfpack junior’s backhand. Chen then hit two inside-out crosscourt forehands to Roger’s backhand again and on the second shot, Rogers chipped the backhand slice past the baseline to conclude the Round of 32 match.
In the first round, Chen took on Pepperdine’s No. 53 Jessica Failla. After the Blue Devil sophomore won the first set 6-2, she closed out the straight-set victory 6-4 in the second.
Chen was joined by Duke freshman No. 11 Maria Mateas and junior No. 33 Meible Chi.
Seeded in the 9-16 range, Mateas matched up with Illinois sophomore No. 43 Asuka Kawai in the first round. The Duke freshman took the first set 6-3 before she lost the second and third sets 2-6 and 3-6, respectively.
No. 33 Chi lost to UCLA’s No. 45 Jada Hart 1-6, 1-6 to conclude her successful junior season.
The Blue Devils also received on entry in the doubles 32-team draw. Pairing up for the first time since March 6, Duke seniors No. 18 Ellyse Hamlin and Kaitlyn McCarthy were matched up the tournament’s top seed from Southern California, Angela Kulikov and Rianna Valdes.
“They show up day in, day out in practice, in the weight room, as student-athletes in the classroom,” Manasse said. “They fought and competed and left it all out there on the court in doubles. But that wasn’t what impresses me the most, it’s kind of just how they conduct themselves for their whole career and they are Blue Devils for life.”
In what turned out to be their final collegiate match, the Blue Devil tandem fell in the first set 1-6 and lost the second set 3-6.
Chen will take on a familiar foe in North Carolina’s No. 20 Sara Daavettila Thursday evening at the USTA National Campus. On April 21 in the ACC Conference Championship, the Duke sophomore came from a set down to win the third singles match by the score of 6-7(1), 6-0, 6-1.
“First off, she has to take care of her body tonight. Eat right and rest. Make sure she’s properly hydrated and then we’ll talk to her again tomorrow about the proper game plan,” Manasse said. “She’s playing a familiar opponent in Daavettila. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and how she can impose her game. If she goes out aggressively again, she’ll be fine.”