Kelly Chen threw her racket on the ground after match point, but it wasn’t out of frustration.
It was because with her last swing of the racket, she had sent Duke to the Round of 16 of the NCAA tournament.
“Definitely the top [moment of my tennis career]. I think there was so much on the line. This match put us to the Sweet 16, going to Orlando so I’d say number one for me,” Chen said.
After beating Alabama in the first round of the regionals Friday, Duke found itself in a much tougher battle with No. 8-seed Baylor Saturday evening. All eyes were on Chen for the third set of her singles match against Baylor's Mel Krywoj, as all the other matches had concluded in straight sets before the senior had a chance to wrap up in Waco, Texas.
Chen lost the first set, but mounted a comeback to steal the next two sets from Krywoj, securing the point for the Blue Devils and giving them the decisive 4-3 edge. With that, Duke punched its ticket to Orlando, Fla., for the next round of the NCAA tournament.
“I try to focus a lot on myself and my opponent across the court and just me hitting the balls that I want to hit, ignoring all the fans but also the energy that I get from my teammates every time the points ends,” Chen said. “They’ve encouraged me this whole time.”
As the singles matches progressed, it became clear that either Chen, Margaryta Bilokin or Karolina Berankova was going to have to stage a comeback in order for the Blue Devils to come out on top.
Bilokin and Berankova dropped their matches, and with Georgia Drummy, Meible Chi and Chloe Beck having won their points, the entire fate of Duke’s season rested on Chen’s racket.
Chen found herself in a hole after losing the first set 6-3, and it looked even more worrisome for the Blue Devils when the senior fell into a 1-3 deficit to start the second.
But the Cerritos, Calif., native was not deterred, and slowly worked her back into the set before winning it 7-5.
“When she lost the first set, she wasn’t frustrated at all,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said of when he knew Chen was locked in. “She said, 'I know what I need to do, I know how I need to play,' and didn’t let it phase her at all. I think she just looked committed to what she was doing, even when she was losing.”
After narrowly winning that second set, Chen never looked back in the third. She jumped out to a 5-1 lead before eventually finishing things off with 6-2 victory, sending her entire team into a frenzy of excitement on Court No. 1.
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While Chen’s performance certainly garnered all the attention Saturday, several other Blue Devils performed well in both matches of the regionals, namely Chi and Drummy. Both players won their singles points Friday and Saturday, with Drummy winning each of her sets against Baylor's Jessica Hinojosa 6-0, 6-0.
Chi and Drummy’s wins were all the more important Saturday as well, considering Duke dropped the doubles point for just the fifth time all season and was therefore forced to win four of six singles matches to earn enough points to defeat the Bears.
“Hats off to our team for believing and trusting themselves and trusting each other,” Ashworth said. “The only thing I told them after the doubles was there's a million excuses why we lost that doubles match, but we only have one opportunity in front of us and so we can talk about how it's 95 degrees out on the court or we can talk about 20 mile an hour winds, look for excuses but we have to take advantage of the one opportunity that we have and let the excuses come another time—you know, we did that.”
The Blue Devils undoubtedly made sure to seize the opportunity in front of them Saturday, and they will have another shot at pulling off another upset May 16 in their Sweet 16 matchup against No. 9-seed Central Florida.