Garrett Johns split close sets with the No. 13 player in the country and Duke’s new doubles team had match point over the nation’s No. 13 doubles pair, but the shorthanded Blue Devils came up just short against Wake Forest.
Duke lost 4-0 to the 11th-ranked Demon Deacons at Ambler Tennis Stadium Sunday, dropping its eighth-straight match to a top-20 team since its upset of Illinois in January 2020. The Blue Devils started strong, and were one point away from clinching the overall doubles point before the reshuffled No. 1 doubles team of Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang dropped five straight games. Duke wasn’t within striking distance of a win after that.
“We just have to take care of the big points better,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We had some real chances in doubles…[but] they got the momentum, and were able to flip the doubles point.”
The Blue Devils (9-9, 4-5 in the ACC) had to open their final homestand without either Sean Sculley or Edu Güell, their senior captains and two of their top-three singles players, due to injuries. That forced Zhang, Luka Keist and Faris Khan up to Nos. 2, 3 and 4, while Andrew Dale and Heller filled in on courts 5 and 6, respectively.
Despite five players out of their normal lineup positions and three relatively new doubles combinations, Duke came awfully close to pulling off a major upset against Wake Forest (25-5, 10-1).
The match started with the outcomes of all the doubles developing quickly, with the Blue Devils' second doubles team falling behind and first and third racing out to leads. But while the third swiftly clinched its set, the first doubles team failed to convert its match point despite being up 5-2, and surrendered the doubles point.
The singles matches seemed to develop as rapidly, with Johns, Zhang and Dale racing out to big leads early, but Keist, Khan and Heller facing early deficits. All three of the latter trio would go on to lose in straight sets, but only a pair of those sets were lost worse than 6-3. Johns, Zhang and Dale each faced tougher competition in their respective second sets, but kept pace. All three performances were notable, with Johns facing the country’s No. 13 singles player in Henri Squire and Dale having his best performance since a likely February win at No. 5 Tennessee was cut short.
“We definitely had opportunities,” Smith said. “I thought Andrew Dale, this was his best day, at least as a Blue Devil. He played one doubles and singles, he was an inch or two away from winning that in straight sets…. So he kind of really showed us what he can do in singles and doubles. Zhang continues to play extremely well, and Faris had a bit of a tough day today, but Garrett was up a set, 6-2, 5-2, serving against the top guy in the country, and again just couldn't quite push through, just fell a little short.
“But our No. 1 doubles team, they weren't even in our lineup a month ago, and they had the opportunity to play [Wake’s No. 1 team], and had a chance. Definitely seeing some improvements.”
Those improvements have been key to a Duke team that experienced a slow start to the season, starting 0-4 against Power 5 teams before having to play its first six conference games on the road. So the paradisiacal conditions on Sunday that enabled the squad to finally return to Ambler was a welcome reprieve, clearly reinvigorating a team still capable of making both ACC and NCAA tournament noise.
“It felt good, it's our first outdoor match in almost two years, really,” Smith said. “Last year, we got COVID, [the season was] cut short. And the ACC scheduler got us pretty good with seven-out-of-eight matches on the road [this year]. So that made things more challenging, but our guys are resilient. And it's tennis, there's ups and downs, and we're playing in the toughest conference in the country. So we're trying to build towards the ACC tournament.”
The Blue Devils close out both their homestand and the regular season with Florida State and Miami this upcoming weekend.
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