The match was a nail-biter from the get-go, but it didn't come out in Duke's favor.
The Blue Devils fell 2-4 to South Florida in the NCAA tournament’s opening round Saturday, ending its up-and-down season at 12 wins and 11 losses. The opening doubles point in Gainesville, Fla., was hotly contested, with Andrew Zhang and Michael Heller starting off strong for the Blue Devils with their commanding 6-3 victory, but the win was abruptly followed by back-to-back 6-2 defeats, leaving Duke down a point going into the singles.
“The doubles point creates a lot of momentum because it’s first. We played great at two doubles and we won that first, and at one and three we just had a ton of chances early that we didn’t get, and we just seemed to get a little discouraged on those courts—that’s one of the worst doubles points we’ve played recently,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “That set the tone a little bit, and we challenged the guys to try and grab the momentum back in singles."
The squad did briefly snatch this sacred momentum, as sophomore Garrett Johns made quick work of his South Florida opponent, winning 6-1, 6-4 before any other singles match had concluded. But in line with Duke’s back-and-forth season, the afternoon subsequently went south, as seniors Sean Sculley and Edu Guell both lost in straight sets to their South Florida counterparts.
These defeats left the Blue Devils down 1-3 with three matches left to complete, and since four points are needed to claim victory in college tennis, Duke had to be perfect for the rest of the day to move on to the Round of 32. It was here that the excitement really set in, as all three of the remaining singles contests went to three sets and were tight to the last shot.
“We really grabbed momentum about two hours into the singles," Smith said. "Zhang [was] in a third set and battling, Dale [was] down a set and a break and so he was up in the third, Luca [Keist] was up in the third set. Zhang was able to finish it off in a really close tiebreaker, and I felt really good that Dale was going to win."
Zhang’s dramatic victory in a third set 7-5 tiebreaker brought the score to 2-3, but Luca Keist’s defeat at the hands of South Florida senior Pierre Luquet clinched the victory for the Bulls. Luquet was not overly aggressive in his contest with Keist, but he was simply more consistent, and made more balls when it mattered most.
“[Keist] has an aggressive game style and plays his best when he’s coming forward and dictating, and his opponent is a complete counterpuncher, so he’s not looking to hit winners but he passes well and he’s not looking to miss,” Smith said. “So unfortunately [Keist] just ended up missing more and the other guy came up with some passes. So it’s really unfortunate because I feel like if [Keist] wins that I think we win the match.”
Despite the heartbreaking defeat, Duke has a lot to be proud of this year. Just making the NCAA tournament is an accomplishment in and of itself, and going into the concluding stretch of the regular season, the Blue Devils were on the outside looking in. The squad fought back, earned some quality victories and entered the tournament as the No. 32 team in the country, and eventually ended the season one match away from securing a spot in the Round of 32.
In terms of individual performances throughout the season, Smith highlighted the success of Duke’s younger players.
“I think in general the young guys stepped up. I think [sophomore] Andrew Zhang was our MVP, he had the most wins in singles, the most wins in doubles, came through clutch in a lot of situations," Smith said. "Freshman Andrew Dale really stepped up, Garrett Johns stepped up and played every match at one singles and one doubles and was nationally ranked in both. You know these are all sophomores and freshmen.”
So despite the up and down year, the squad can hold its head high with the bright future ahead. And the year is not quite over for all the Blue Devils, as Johns and Sculley qualified for the NCAA Doubles Championship and will head down to Orlando, Fla., to represent Duke in late May.
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