There’s an argument to be made that no team was hurt more by the cancellation of the 2020 spring sports season than men’s tennis. With five elite freshmen, two highly-touted international transfers and two top seniors, Duke’s roster was especially positioned to contend.
But now, both seniors are gone and one of those highly-touted transfers couldn’t fly back from Switzerland in time for preseason workouts. Those 2020 freshmen got just over a dozen matches to adjust to the collegiate level, and one of the freshmen has turned pro. To call this a radical upheaval would be a criminal understatement.
It was truly anyone’s guess as to how this year would start, and it remains just as hard to figure how it’s going to end. Early losses to No. 20 South Carolina, Northwestern and now-No. 3 Tennessee were not nearly as bad as the combined score of 1-12 would indicate, but they’ve been a real cold shower for a Blue Devil team with at least conference title aspirations. Still, there’s talent here to dream on, and more than just a couple universes where we look back at that early stretch and laugh. -Em Adler
New player to watch: Faris Khan
One notable newcomer to the program this season is Faris Khan. While classmate Andrew Dale may come in as the higher-rated recruit, Khan has an outstanding resume in his own right. The 6-foot Floridian was a top-five recruit before a knee injury in high school and won the doubles title with his brother at the 2016 USTA National Clay Court Championships. He was also selected to represent the U.S. at the Junior Davis Cup in 2014, where he finished undefeated individually.
Khan has already made significant contributions to the program this year, winning all four of his singles matches during nonconference play. Heading into the team’s ACC slate, the stud newcomer will undoubtedly play an important role in determining whether or not the Blue Devils live up to expectations. -Robert Miron
Returning player to watch: All of them
Look, I know that’s a cop-out. You don’t have to tell me.
But it remains essential to keep in mind that we have absolutely no idea how a single returning player will look on the court. The last time we saw them play, Edu Güell was still working on consistency in his footwork and lower-body mechanics; Luka Keist was killing it on the second and third courts; Garrett Johns was making a case for ACC Freshman of the Year from Court 4; Sam Rubell was dealing with a leg injury; Andrew Zhang was looking to hit another level against tougher competition; Sean Sculley wasn’t ready to consistently play singles; and Michael Heller, a favorite for the six-spot this year, didn’t get into any high-profile matches during his freshman season.
Point is: there’s truly no telling what anyone is going to bring on any given day, and finding that out will be half the battle. -Adler
Most anticipated matchup: at North Carolina, March 17
Although it’s a typical pick for any Duke athletic season, the annual matchup with North Carolina is especially important in tennis. The Tar Heels are currently ranked No. 2 in the country, remaining undefeated through nonconference play including their second ITA Team National Indoor Championship in the past six years. Duke will have an opportunity to go into Chapel Hill and snatch a huge win over its hated rival, a victory that would be a major resume-builder for the young Blue Devils. -Miron
As I said before, there’s talent to dream on. And who needs veteran leadership when you’ve got international stars and wunderkinds galore? Duke could easily finish in the top few in the conference if the shots land where they should, and could go a heck of a ways in the NCAA tournament. -Adler
Maybe some experience and leadership isn’t so overrated, after all. Especially in a conference with talent up the wazoo, Duke could very easily end its season with an early exit in the ACC tournament. -Adler
Adler: 14-7 (10-3 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in NCAA quarterfinals
Miron: 12-9 overall (8-5 in the ACC), loss in ACC semifinals, loss in NCAA Round of 64
Editor's note: This is a part of The Chronicle's series of previews for Duke's spring sports, the rest of which can be found here.
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