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Duke men's tennis upsets No. 19 Illinois, completes weekend sweep

Nick Stachowiak had perhaps the biggest win of his Duke career against illinois.
Nick Stachowiak had perhaps the biggest win of his Duke career against illinois.

On Friday, Duke played the part of David for once in a triumphant upset against tennis Goliath Illinois.

The Blue Devils led the 19th-ranked Fighting Illini from the first point to the last tie-break, winning 6-1 against one of the most talented teams in the nation Friday evening in Sheffield Tennis Center. Leading the way were Nick Stachowiak and Garrett Johns, both notching doubles wins and dispatching their singles opponent in just two sets. Johns recorded his win with little excitement, dropping just three games, while Stachowiak needed every ounce of effort to get past 2019 NCAA singles semifinalist Aleksandar Kovacevic.

“That’s the best win of his college career,” head coach Ramsey Smith said Friday. “He’s always been very solid, and a kind of middle, upper-middle lineup [guy that] you feel really good [about]. But there was a time where he didn’t feel like he matched up with the very top players. Last year, he got some breakthroughs and showed that he could play at that level, but this is a whole different level here."

Duke (7-0) similarly dominated Sunday afternoon, dispatching Northwestern 4-0. Stachowiak followed up his Friday win with a victory against Northwestern's Steven Forman, a player ranked not much lower than Kovacevic, as part of a 4-0 Blue Devil sweep of the Wildcats (4-2). 

“I’ve been putting in hard work and it’s my senior year,” said Stackowick Friday. “I just go into every match, believing in myself and knowing that I can play at the highest level with whoever I’m up against…. There aren’t many technical changes in my game, but I’ve definitely worked on the mental portion. Playing at the number one spot against these better players, I’m thinking and believing in myself that I can compete at the highest level with these guys.”

The Sheffield Tennis Center was packed throughout most of the Illinois contest, and the crowd was certainly a boon to the players. From boos over objectionable calls to thunderous cheers for Sean Sculley’s “ice in his veins” post-win celebration to a standing ovation after Stachowiak’s strenuous win, the Blue Devil fans made their presence felt. Sculley proved to be the biggest cheerleader, however, screaming "It's over!" as Spencer Furman clinched the upset for Duke.

“He’s just completely our catalyst, energy-wise,” Smith said about Sculley Friday.

Kovacevic was one of three top players to hit the courts for Illinois (1-3). Siphosothando Montsi and Zeke Clark both came into Friday ranked within the top 100, the former beating Duke's Luca Keist in a third-set tie-break, the latter losing to Edu Güell the same way.

Only freshman Garrett John’s singles win came easily for Duke. Johns is now 5-0 to start his career, playing as high at second against NC A&T.

“I was good to get [my match] done quickly, so I could focus on [my teammate’s] matches,” said Johns Friday. “And I played really well.”

Johns was rewarded with a day off when his teammates took the court against Northwestern. In addition to Stachowiak, Keist, Güell, Furman, and Sam Rubell played both matches, with Andrew Zhang filling in for Johns in singles Sunday. Furman and Rubell finished up 2-0 weekends to clinch Duke’s sweep, while Keist and Zhang were just a couple games away from wins themselves.

“I told the guys that I feel like we’re a little bit ahead of where I was hoping we’d be at this point,” said Smith Friday. “It’s obviously a long season and our main focus is to be playing our best in April and May for [the] NCAA [tournament]. We’re definitely building with each match and the­ guys are getting more confident.”

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