It all came down to Kelly Chen.
The Blue Devils didn’t get the spark they wanted after decisively winning the doubles point of the ACC tournament semifinals, and though they battled back from losing all but one opening set in the singles, No. 2-seed Duke and No. 3-seed Miami were tied 3-3 with just one match still going. All eyes were on the senior out of Cerritos, Calif., and the Hurricanes’ Maya Tahan, as both teams’ ACC championship hopes rode on the outcome of a crucial third set on court four.
Tahan quickly took the upper hand, going up 4-1 then 5-3, and after several grueling hours of tennis beneath the relentless Rome, Ga., sun, the Blue Devils’ path to their first conference title in ten years seemed dim.
Chen, though, was unfazed, winning three straight games to go up 6-5. However, Tahan wouldn’t be written off too easily and pushed the match to a decisive tiebreaker. Visibly exhausted but siphoning every ounce of energy she had left into every hit, Chen held on until her foe finally made an error. The realization of her feat settled over her and her teammates swarmed her; Chen, once again the hero, had sent her team to the ACC tournament championship.
“I don't think that she ever lets the moment get too big for her,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said of Chen. “There's just so much belief and trust, in those moments, that she has in herself and that her teammates have in her…. She just has this ability when the stakes are down to just raise the level of our game. And she did it again today.”
The journey to the 4-3 comeback victory at the Rome Tennis Center was not direct by any means. After a double bye, the Blue Devils lost the doubles point to a plucky, No. 7-seed Wake Forest team in Friday's quarterfinal and were forced to fight back in the singles. Eventually, though, they took the match handily behind dominant performances from Chen, junior Chloe Beck, senior Georgia Drummy and freshman Emma Jackson, none of whom took more than two sets to win their matches.
That momentum carried into Saturday’s doubles, with Beck and freshman Ellie Coleman grabbing a 6-2 win on the second court to open the match. Graduate student Eliza Omirou and senior Margaryta Bilokin then finished it off 6-3 on the third after Miami’s duo of Eden Richardson and Daevenia Achong defeated Drummy and sophomore Karolina Berankova.
“We came out swinging and with a lot of energy and not giving up a lot of free points, not making a lot of mistakes with our decision making,” Ashworth said.
With the doubles point secured, all Duke had to do was win three of the six singles matches, and after some elite play in the quarterfinals, that looked more than doable. In fact, it seemed like a slam dunk.
That wasn’t how it happened, though. The Hurricanes took 6-1 first sets from Duke's top two singles players—Beck and Drummy—and won three more first sets for good measure. Only Coleman hung on in the opening set, and the Blue Devils had a steep hill to climb.
“I was a little bit disappointed with, after the doubles, not being able to carry some of that momentum into the singles,” Ashworth said. “I told our girls, they're gonna make you play, they're gonna make you hit balls, and they’re gonna have long points, and you just got to stay in there.”
Beck was eventually ousted in the second set by Richardson, as were Jackson and Bilokin by Isabella Pfennig and Audrey Boch-Collins, respectively.
Coleman then secured Duke’s first singles point with her 6-4, 6-1 win against Tatyana Nikolenko, tying the match at 2-2 and giving the Blue Devils a much-needed jolt. If Chen played the hero at the end, Coleman certainly set the stage at the beginning, staying composed from the start of her doubles match to the end of her singles win, not conceding any sets.
“She's so emotionally invested in every match that she plays and that was great to see as a freshman,” Ashworth said of Coleman. “She didn't let that moment get the best of her there, and so hopefully she can build on that and keep playing well.”
Meanwhile, Drummy fought her way back into contention on court two after a tough first set to take her match 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. Though Bilokin fell in her match right after, Drummy handed the baton off to Chen and the rest is history. Now, the Blue Devils have their sights set on a conference championship, and their biggest rival in the pursuit may not be finals opponent Virginia, but fatigue.
Still, with a brave rally under its belt, Duke appears ready to take on whatever Sunday's match brings.
“It's a three, four-hour grind every match you play,” Ashworth said. “As every day passes in a tournament, the competition is going to be tougher, and so they have to keep raising that bar and raising their level. And they've been able to do that.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.