Confidence was at its peak for the Blue Devils as they faced off against the rival Tar Heels.
Unfortunately, North Carolina's play was also at its peak.
Following an impressive run into the quarterfinals, Duke entered the Orlando courts Wednesday night with hopes to shock the No. 1-seed, North Carolina, and the rest of the college tennis community.
While the match remained close deep into the night, Duke’s postseason magic came to an end in a 4-1 loss. In spite of the disappointing outcome, the Blue Devils showed true grit and strong play throughout Wednesday’s match.
“It's not often I tell these girls, after a loss, to make sure we walk out of here with our heads up, but I honestly think we deserve that tonight,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I mean, aside from the eight players and coaches and people we had here, there weren't a lot of people that actually gave us a chance to push them or win this thing tonight. And I think we did. Other than win we did everything we could have asked for.”
Against the top-ranked Tar Heels, Duke had an uphill battle from the start. That didn’t stop them from jumping out strong early in the doubles matches.
After a loss by Duke's Chloe Beck and Karolina Berankova on Court 3, Meible Chi and Margaryta Bilokin won their match 6-2 on Court 1 to tie up the doubles score, while Kelly Chen and Georgia Drummy were locked in a tight match on Court 2. With Chen and Drummy falling behind at the end of the set, North Carolina managed to secure the doubles point with a 7-5 win.
The Blue Devils took the first set in four of the six singles matches--a pace which, if continued, would send the team on to the semifinals. As the matches progressed, however, Duke’s momentum seemed to slow.
Bilokin fell early to North Carolina’s Fiona Crawley 6-1, 6-0, giving the Tar Heels a 2-0 lead in the match. Soon after, though, sophomore Beck’s 6-1, 6-4 win notched the first point for Duke.
But just as the singles scores seemed to point in favor of the Blue Devils, the early leads of Drummy, Chi and Berankova quickly dwindled. A string of successful games across the board gave the Tar Heels the upper hand, and Makenna Jones’ comeback 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 win against Chi stuck the nail in the coffin for Duke's season.
Although the Blue Devils came up short, they demonstrated extreme resiliency in an unprecedented year.
“Yeah, [it was] definitely one of the most challenging seasons that we've been a part of, but we played our best tennis at the end of the year, and we got better,” Ashworth said. “We showed the last two weeks what kind of team that we can be.”
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Though the team is losing Chi, the Blue Devils will still return most of their roster for next season. With the experience from this year’s postseason run, Duke will be back with high expectations, backed by a deep and talented group. There’s plenty of reason for optimism for the years to come, as the Blue Devils will continue their pursuit of a second national championship.
“We have some great girls coming back,” Ashworth said. “This was a great learning experience for them because of COVID and these moments, but I think that they are eager to come back and be ready to go. So, I'm looking forward to having a full season and being able to work with them, and hopefully we can use this as a stepping stone.”
Although the team portion of the season has come to an end, the individual championships lie ahead from May 23-28. Six Blue Devils are scheduled to play, as Beck, Chen and Drummy will take on the singles tournament, for which Chi is also the first alternate. Additionally, the doubles teams of Beck and Berankova as well as Bilokin and Chi will chase the doubles title.