After a disappointing 4-2 loss to 10th-ranked Kentucky six days prior, Duke bounced back with a 4-2 win against Illinois Saturday. A major struggle for the team had been its doubles play, as the team had lost the doubles point in four straight matchups heading into Saturday afternoon’s bout against the Fighting Illini.
“We had some good doubles practices this week,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Just been working on playing a bit more aggressively. It was nice to win a doubles point, we hadn’t won one in a little bit and it makes life a lot easier."
The importance of the doubles point in college tennis cannot be overstated. It’s the first point to go on the board and can generate lots of momentum going into the singles slate. Often the opening three doubles matches are the crucial difference in the final score, and Duke knows this all too well—with just two more doubles point victories against South Carolina and Northwestern, the Blue Devils would be sitting at a dominant 7-1 season record instead of the 5-3 record they currently hold.
In Saturday's match, the Blue Devils finally broke through and ended their four-match doubles skid. Victories from the pair of Andrew Zhang and Connor Krug and the duo of Faris Khan and Niroop Vallabhaneni were enough to put the team up 1-0 heading into singles, where three wins from Andrew Dale, Garrett Johns and Edu Guell secured the dual-match victory. So, on top of the improved doubles play, is a weaker opponent or a stronger showing by the Blue Devils the reason for victory?
“Kentucky is a notch better than Illinois, but Illinois is a tough schedule," said Smith. "They have been playing without their number one player who came back today. Overall I thought we did a good job. Garrett [Johns] won a huge match which really helped with momentum, Andrew Dale won in straight sets, and obviously Edu [Guell] was able to close it out and win convincingly in the third."
It seems the answer to that question is a better overall performance by the Blue Devils. After all, Duke had lost 19 of its last 27 matchups against Illinois. The team battled hard in the singles matches, with half of those matchups going the distance to three sets, including the battle between Illinois’ Siphosothando Montsi and Zhang. The Fighting Illini (3-6) decided to play Montsi, often their top player, at No. 2 singles, and the two opponents were in the middle of a long third set after splitting the first two before Duke clinched the overall victory and the match went unfinished.
Guell’s win against Lucas Horve was a particular nailbiter, as the senior from Spain won the first set 6-3 before his Illinois opponent fought back to take the second set by the same score. In the third set, however, Guell was dominant, winning 6-1 to clinch the dual match for Duke. In the final game, Guell served his way to a 40-15 advantage before Horve saved two match points to force the game to deuce. Here, on his third match point and with the whole team watching courtside, Guell closed it out and was mobbed by his teammates as Horve tossed his racket in disgust.
“Especially happy for Edu [Guell]. Felt good about his week of practice and I was proud of him,” said Smith.
So how do we evaluate the team’s performance as a whole so far this year? The Blue Devils sit at 5-3 with just two matches left before the ACC season begins. The squad has had a positive start to the season and can be proud of its winning record, but clearly there is room for improvement in order for these Blue Devils to truly become the dominant squad that can make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“Doubles is an area of biggest improvement," said Smith. "Just getting everyone clicking at the same time in singles. Getting a little better at the middle part of the lineup and continuing to improve in doubles are the biggest things we need to focus on."
However, the doubles side already seems to be getting better, and the Illinois match is a case in point. And while the singles play can always improve, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the plethora of talent in Duke’s lineup every time it takes the court.
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