It was the night of Jan. 19, 2019. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson had just led Duke men's basketball to an exhilarating 72-70 win over the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten—Virginia.
But Barrett, Williamson and company weren’t the only top recruits in Cameron Indoor Stadium that evening. Just above the floor sat five of the best men’s high school tennis players in the country—Michael Heller, Garrett Johns, Andrew Zhang, Omni Kumar and Samuel Rubell.
The Blue Devils' Class of 2019 ranks second in the country according to Tennis Recruiting Network, after reaching a high ranking of No. 1 overall in January, despite the team's mediocre finishes over the last few seasons.
“[Associate head coach Jonathan Stokke] and I put a lot of work into this recruiting class,” head coach Ramsey Smith said of his incoming group. “Everything just kind of came together the way we wanted, so obviously extremely excited to get this crop in...we’re looking forward to making some big jumps with this new group coming in.”
‘It wasn’t like a basketball situation’
There was no shortage of coverage of the Blue Devils’ men’s basketball recruiting class last season. But while the men’s tennis squad's incoming class may be similar regarding its collection of talent, it was accomplished entirely differently.
There were no premature group chats like the one between Barrett, Williamson, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish. Only a couple of the guys even knew each other personally prior to committing, with the group looking forward to really bonding for the first time at orientation. The thought of forming one of the country’s top freshman classes together was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
“It wasn’t like a basketball situation where they’re all just best friends and decided to come together,” Smith said. “I felt like the momentum built as each one committed. We narrowed things down pretty early and were fortunate to get the guys that we really wanted.”
Rather than utilizing pre-existing friendships, Smith and Stokke were able to complete this exceptional class by recruiting kids with similar visions for their college tennis experience—a supportive coaching staff, a committed team and an excellent balance between academics and athletics.
“It was by chance,” said Heller, who committed to Duke right before his junior year of high school and comes in as the No. 3 overall recruit in the country. “We didn’t really talk about it and it wasn’t like a planned thing, but we all have similar goals. [I’m] definitely happy that it worked out the way it did.”
Combining academic and athletic excellence
When Smith came to Durham to play tennis in the fall of 1998, one of the main factors in his decision was Duke’s unique balance between elite academics and high-level athletics. Twenty years later and now the former All-American is on the other end of the recruiting spectrum, using that same balance as one of his strongest pitches to top-ranked high schoolers.
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“I feel like we’re the best combination of high-level tennis and high-level academics, where you don’t have to sacrifice on one end,” Smith said. “You get the best of both worlds.”
Heller cited strong academics and a passionate student body as a few of the elements that attracted him to Duke over the various other powerhouse programs that recruited him, such as Texas, Florida, North Carolina, UCLA and USC. And the Boca Raton, Fla., native wasn’t the only one.
Zhang, the No. 10 ranked recruit and the last one to commit to the Blue Devils in March of his junior year, was also attracted to Duke’s perfect harmony of school and sports, choosing the Blue Devils over Harvard, Columbia, Michigan and Michigan State. But his situation poses another challenge Smith and his coaching staff face in the recruiting process—making Duke stand out compared to other top academic schools like Stanford and the Ivy League.
In terms of that, he believes he can offer something few other programs do.
“We have a special situation where we have the two main coaches [who] both went through the program and were both All-Americans and highly successful at Duke,” Smith said. “So we know exactly what it feels like to be a Duke student-athlete…I don’t think there are many other programs that have that, where the top two coaches really have that much of a connection and a passion for the program.”
That unique aspect seemed to work for Rubell, the No. 44 player in his class. He announced his commitment to Duke in February of his junior year, choosing the Blue Devils over Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Pennsylvania.
‘A group that loves tennis’
While a large collection of talent is necessary for any program to be successful, Smith’s recruiting mechanism wasn’t just trying to sell Duke tennis to every ranked high school kid he could find. He said he spent a lot of time with each recruit individually to make sure each one fit the culture he’s creating within the program.
“One of the things that we look for every year and that stands out with this group is just passion for tennis and desire to really be great and to play at the next level,” Smith said. “This is a group that loves tennis.”
When Zhang came to Duke for both his unofficial and official visits, one of the things he noticed was the team’s work ethic day in and day out. He said the 100 percent focus and commitment given by every single player on the court was very similar to his high school team in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which won three state championships in his four years there.
Furthermore, both Johns—the No. 9 ranked recruit—and Kumar—No. 17—traveled overseas to play in pro tournaments earlier this summer—Johns in China and Kumar in Portugal. It’s that exact kind of dedication to the game Smith wants to see out of every single player coming to Durham, a devotion to improvement that can rub off on teammates and transform the Blue Devils back into the elite program they once were.
Duke has had a rough past couple of years. While Smith led the Blue Devils to six consecutive top-15 finishes between 2010 and 2015, the team has only been able to crack the top 30 one time since, including a final national ranking of No. 53 last season.
But this year’s recruiting class could be the one to revitalize the program and re-enter Duke's name back into the national conversation.
“Absolutely,” Smith said regarding whether this season’s incoming class can help recruit future classes to Durham. “And it already has. Once you get not just good tennis players but players that other players really like and respect, it just makes the program even more attractive.
“I really think this class is a foundation and kind of a building block of the future, and it’s gotten people even more excited about Duke tennis and obviously should be great for the future of the program.”
The five who make up the Blue Devils’ official recruiting class won’t be the only newcomers trying to turn the program around, however, as sophomore transfer Edu Güell will be eligible to compete this fall. Güell transferred to Duke last January from Spain, where he reached a high ranking of No. 27 in the world junior tennis standings in 2016 and participated in the country’s Davis Cup Team alongside professionals such as Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. His presence only adds to one of the deepest rosters Duke has had in a long time.
Now with Güell in addition to his elite recruiting class, Smith said he has his sights on getting the Blue Devils back into the top ten nationally and top three in the ACC. But some members of the program have their sights set even higher.
“In the next four years I would really hope we could take a shot at getting a national title,” Heller said. “That’s definitely a big goal.”
Duke men’s tennis has never won a national championship. But with the talent Smith has brought in, talk like that is certainly not out of the question.
“There’s a lot of successful programs at Duke—we’ve been one of those very successful programs at Duke being a top-ten program for most of the last 25 years,” Smith said. “The last couple years have been tough and we’re really trying to get back into that national prominent position and be one of those teams at Duke that really raises the bar.”