There were positive signs in Duke’s first dual matches of the season, but some predictable mistakes ultimately downed the Blue Devils in the ITA Kickoff Weekend this past Sunday and Monday.
To say that No. 23 Duke was experiencing a slow start would be underselling it. In 4-1 and 4-0 losses to No. 20 South Carolina and Northwestern, respectively, the Blue Devils seemed in sore need of a preseason.
“Last year, we got the opportunity to kind of work our way in with a lot of home matches and we got a lot of wins under our belt early,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “And then [this year] is just the preparation, not having a fall season, not being able to compete.”
For starters, Swiss senior Luka Keist, a preseason candidate for the team’s No. 1 singles spot, is still ramping up to competitive play after quarantines and shutdowns prevented him from having any normal preparation for the season. Keist played at No. 2 doubles in both of the opening matches but is yet to compete in singles.
“Keist flew home to Switzerland, for the first time since last winter break, because he was here all summer [and] wasn't able to go home,” Smith said. “But he had to quarantine for 14 days, and I think on the 14th day, Switzerland shut down all public facilities. So he didn't hit a tennis ball for two months before arriving here on [Jan. 11]."
Signs of rust were apparent for the rest of the roster as well. Most Blue Devils lost their points on sloppy play and unforced errors. Several break and set points, including ones that would’ve flipped the doubles point in both matches, were thrown away.
That’s not to say that Duke’s talent has diminished, though. Throughout both matches, the Blue Devils flashed evidence of why they came into the season ranked.
Garrett Johns, The Chronicle’s pick for co-Team MVP last year, is the team’s first underclassman regular at No. 1 singles since the acclaimed Nicolas Alvarez in 2016. At No. 4 singles, Andrew Zhang continued to show the consistency and composure that makes him competitive in most matches. And at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, respectively, Samuel Rubell and Michael Heller each had extended stretches in which they looked like high-level contributors, each losing just one set by a score worse than 6-4.
Furthermore, all four of those players are sophomores, with only one shortened season of college experience and loads of potential.
Potential doesn't win games, of course. And until Keist takes the court, this is a team starting four underclassmen, with only three upperclassmen on the entire roster. That’s a tough formula for any team, let alone one trying to replace two of its top players and longtime leaders in Nick Stachowiack and Spencer Furman.
Between Johns, Rubell, Heller and some heralded (but currently injured) freshmen, Duke has a cadre of young talent, and there’s bound to be winning players at multiple positions in the lineup. In that sense, the formula is essentially the same as last year’s young group that ended up surprising many en route to a 13-2 start before the season was canceled.
However, the margin for error is much smaller now that Stachowiak is gone, and the team is betting on improvements from the crop of current sophomores. That’s a likely gamble, but a gamble nonetheless.
“Our sophomores in general have been awesome. Just look at how much [Johns has] improved, how much Samuel Rubell has improved, how much Andrew Zhang has improved, and Michael Heller as well,” Smith said. “[Sculley is] a senior co-captain, and really brings a lot in terms of experience, leadership, passion for the team and the program, and he had a great two weekends.
"Like I said, he was up a set, and in the driver's seat of both of his matches and playing a No. 3 [singles opponent] from not playing last year. So, there were positives. But overall, [we've] got to get better and we're addressing that this week.”
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