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Duke men’s tennis puts youth and skill on display at Bonk Invitational

<p>Andrew Zhang stood out in his first collegiate action.</p>

Andrew Zhang stood out in his first collegiate action.

Impressive is a word to describe Duke 2019 recruiting class. Effortless is another, to describe its dominance this weekend.

In the Blue Devils’ first official action of the fall at the Duke Bonk Invitational in Cary, Duke's newcomers shone. Newly-eligible redshirt junior Edu Güell and freshmen Andrew Zhang and Garrett Johns provided a glimpse into what is a very promising future, as Güell topped Johns in the Royal draw championship, and Zhang took the Blue draw championship Sunday.

For Güell, who is joining from the Junior World Tennis Championship and did not play last year due to an NCAA eligibility verdict, it was just a matter of warming up.

“I’m feeling excited, but at the same time it’s tough to come back when you haven’t been competing in year-and-a-half, even if you’re practicing it’s not the same thing,"  Güell said. "In first matches, I’ve struggled a little bit, but I came out with a win, which, that is what counts, and this last match I played much better, and I’m starting to feel better.”

For freshman Andrew Zhang, who faced competitive matches in only his last two rounds, that’s just how it’s been. 

“No, [I didn’t expect my matches to be this uneventful] at all. I’ve been playing really well—surprisingly well—since I got here," Zhang said. "I’ve just been kind of riding that momentum.”

One of those competitive matches came in the semifinal of his draw, against senior teammate  Nick Stachowiak. Stachowiak dealt with a cramp midway through their second set, and ultimately lost to Zhang. 

“Andrew [Zhang]’s doing extremely well, and I knew [his meeting with Stachowiak] was going to be a good match,” Blue Devil head coach Ramsey Smith said. “But all our freshmen are doing well and winning their matches, and progressing in their draws, you know all these matches are opportunities to get matches under their belt, to improve and they're doing a great job.”

Those other freshmen—Johns, Sam Rubell, Omni Kumar, and Michael Heller—had strong performances as well. Johns made it through his draw, just once dropping more than three games in a set, before losing to Güell in three sets in their finals. Rubell dropped his first match, but bounced back to win his draw’s consolation final, displaying athleticism and a compact, shockingly powerful groundstroke along the way. Kumar twice took upperclassmen to three sets in thrilling matches before losing his draw’s consolation final. Heller, the highest-ranked recruit of the freshmen, showcased a frequently unhittable serve and an ability to turn any groundstroke into a winner before falling to Virginia Tech’s Brandon Perez.

“We’re in a unique situation where we have a lot of guys at a similar level, so we can play a lot of different lineups. We also have a lot of depth this year, which we haven’t had the past couple of years,” said Smith. “Essentially, we view the individual season as development time, where we’re really working on different guys’ games, we’re trying to make improvements… we have six basically brand new guys, so we’re learning their games, developing a plan for each one of them, and just trying to improve their talents.”

Their “unique situation” hasn’t just affected Smith. Veterans Stachowiack and Sean Sculley have had to adjust as well.

“I feel like it’s been a big change, big adjustment, but [I’m] enjoying it so far, and looking forward to what’s ahead,” said Sculley. “It’s definitely an adjustment. I was the only freshman coming in, and then I was essentially…the youngest guy for two years, and to go from being there to all of a sudden I’m one of the oldest on the team. It’s definitely a culture shock, because you go from listening to everyone else to actually being able to be a leader and express yourself more.” 

If they’ve had any trouble creating that culture, the only on-court manifestation has been cramps. The only thing that could stop Stachowiak from advancing through his bracket was a cramp, and Sculley—despite a single competitive match en route to a draw championship—had trouble with cramps as well.

“It’s late September, and it’s still 85, 90 degrees out with even hotter heat index, so it’s… just hard to get these physical matches in over and over,” Sculley said.

Duke is dealing with a few lingering injuries with senior Samir Agadi in a walking boot and senior Spencer Furman’s left shoulder injury, but with neither expect to miss time into the winter, that’s not a chief concern for Smith.

“It’s part of the deal, there’s always illness, things happen, but we are ten-deep, and we are getting a transfer in January as well, so it’s the deepest that we’ve been," Smith said. "If you only have six or seven guys, then illnesses and injuries and those type of things can be extremely stressful. So it gives us some leeway with these type of things.”

The Blue Devils have a couple weeks off before heading to Tulsa for the ITA All-American Championship from Oct. 5-13.

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