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ChronSports' 2020 what-if series: Duke men's tennis

It's unclear whether seniors Spencer Furman (above) and Nick Stachowiak will return for one more year.
It's unclear whether seniors Spencer Furman (above) and Nick Stachowiak will return for one more year.

With the suspension and later cancellation of all Duke athletic competition due to the spread of coronavirus, many Blue Devil seasons were abruptly cut short. The Chronicle is going to take a look back at those seasons affected as well as what we missed out on with their cancellations. We've already looked at men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, men's lacrosse and women's lacrosse. Next up: men's tennis.

Season summary

Duke’s 2020 season started the same way it ended: a cancelled match. The spring season’s opener in Manoa, Hawaii was cancelled by rain, while the campaign's back end was cancelled by a pandemic. In between there was a seven-match win streak, multiple major upsets, a couple close losses to top-15 teams and a number of breakout performances.

The Blue Devils’ 2020 season will go into the archives with a 13-2 record, which is of course impressive. But their ACC record of 1-1 shows just how lost this season was—despite 15 matches under its belt, Duke had just a handful of meaningful results to show for it. What the team did in those few big matchups, though, spoke to the excitement surrounding the team, an excitement far higher than recent years. 

Nick Stachowiak’s wins over Illinois’ Aleks Kovacevic and Virginia Tech’s Kenrik Korsgaard—the former of which regarded as “the best win of [Stachowiak's] college career” by head coach Ramsey Smith—marked a new level of play for the senior star. Junior transfers Edu Güell and Luka Keist had thrilling debuts in the blue and white, while senior Spencer Furman was on pace for another All-ACC nod. The freshmen didn’t disappoint either, and there will be few moments in the near future that paint as many smiles on fans’ faces as Samir Agadi’s first two wins. Even without a true legacy, the 2020 season stands out as a major point of inflection for the Blue Devils.

Team MVP

Tennis (at least before the professional level) is unique in that you always know who the best player on the team is—they’re on court one, playing the other team’s best player. If you put anyone else on that court, they simply wouldn't be able to play as well.

Thus, it’s hard to name anyone MVP other than Stachowiak, known to his teammates and coaches as “Stack.” The two-time All-ACC senior from Cary, N.C., was dominant for most of the season, recording countless remarkable wins and dropping just two dual matches, both to elite players. His doubles play with junior Sean Sculley was once again legendary, with only one dual loss and a No. 8 national ranking. Had his play continued at the same level, he would’ve been right in line for a third consecutive All-ACC selection.

Another way to view an MVP of this squad is who performed best at their respective position. Stachowiak would certainly still be an option, but it’s hard to ignore what freshman Garrett Johns did this year.

Johns started the season in competition with four other freshmen for playing time, and ended it regularly playing out of the No. 4 singles spot. He dropped just one dual match all year, a three-set nail-biter against now-No. 12 Tennessee, and his win at Wake Forest was the only other of his matches that could be described as “competitive.” He was flat out one of the best freshmen in the best conference in the country, and virtually a guaranteed win against any opponent regardless of how tight the rest of the team was playing.

What we missed out on

With all the mystery surrounding how teams and players will approach the possibility of extra eligibility, and without any Blue Devils staring down a professional career, it’s possible we see Duke's entire roster run it back for 2021. But if we don’t, we’ll miss out on the final, and likely most realistic, chance that Stachowiak and Furman had at making a real postseason run.

The Blue Devils haven’t made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament since 2015 and haven't advanced past the ACC tournament quarterfinals since 2014. But it was truly difficult to see a team with this much talent, with this many underclassmen developing along the way, not make some noise in either bracket. Now two of the team's most valuable players are graduating this May. There’s plenty of talent to replace them, but seeing two guys who have given their all to this program, even when the results around them didn’t match their own efforts, is a kind of heartbreak Duke couldn’t have even imagined.

What the team missed out on has even longer-term implications. The strength of the freshman class was a storyline that I’ve personally emphasized all year—they were impressive every match this season and were each getting playing time to progress along the way. Now that early development time is gone. If Stachowiak and Furman do not return, two-thirds of the 2021 singles lineup may have just a half dozen competitive matches under their belts.

Best-case scenario

It’s possible that Johns and fellow freshmen Samuel Rubell and Andrew Zhang’s development hastens, Güell finds consistency and this team easily becomes one of the couple best in the ACC. That’s probably the Blue Devils' 99th-percentile outcome, though.

A more realistic best-case scenario probably sees Stachowiak reel off top wins and close losses, while Güell gets better point-to-point consistency and the freshmen slowly improve along the way. Sculley improves and gets back into the singles lineup and that’s the recipe for a top-15 squad: a Duke team that could pull off an upset or two to get at least an ACC championship match appearance and maybe even a few wins in the NCAA championships. The Blue Devils' relative inexperience, whether from the youth of the freshmen or the transfers, sees them hit a ceiling against powerhouses like Florida and Texas while promising greater things in the future.

Worst-case scenario

Keeping things realistic, Stachowiak was never going to implode, but we could have seen his breakthrough wins as exceptions rather than the new norm. Sculley stays unable to play solo and Rubell’s leg injury keeps him out for the long haul, and matches against Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State feature a Duke lineup with just two players with ACC experience. That is to say, a lineup bound to struggle under the bright April lights. Stachowiak, the hometown kid, watches his Blue Devil career end as resignedly and as mercilessly as the final games of the second-round blowout that completes Duke’s 2020 season.

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