Kelly Chen fell to her knees, dropped her racket and let loose a cry of emotion. The Blue Devils had taken down undefeated, top-ranked North Carolina, and Chen had just pushed her team over the edge.
In front of a packed Ambler Tennis Stadium home crowd on the last night of the regular season, No. 9 Duke ended No. 1 North Carolina’s perfect season in a thriller. After rallying for the doubles point, the Blue Devils put the pressure on with singles wins by junior Chloe Beck and freshman Ellie Coleman before Chen celebrated her Senior Night with the decisive 6-4, 6-3 win in the fourth spot. Senior Georgia Drummy held on in three sets to cap the night, and the Blue Devils emerged 5-2 winners in their biggest match to date.
“I felt like we just did a good job of just keeping the pressure on and really not letting up until Kelly won that last point,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said of his team’s win.
With the daylight long since gone from the sky and Beck having already won her match against North Carolina’s Cameron Morra, the attention of the crowd fixed upon looker’s left at Ambler, where Coleman and Chen both stood on the far side, serving for the match. With all three of Drummy, senior Margaryta Bilokin and freshman Emma Jackson splitting the first two sets in their respective matches and the Blue Devils (16-3, 11-2 in the ACC) leading 2-0 overall, a pair of wins from Chen and Coleman appeared to be Duke’s best hope of closing out the Tar Heels (23-1, 12-1).
Coleman didn’t flinch under pressure, taking care of North Carolina junior Anika Yarlagadda in the final game to secure the 7-5, 6-4 win and push the Tar Heels to the brink. Chen—who earlier overcame a 4-0 first-set deficit—couldn’t do the same initially, nearly fighting her way out of a 15-40 hole but yielding the break to Fiona Crawley.
Chen earned that break right back, though, finishing off both her match and the Tar Heels at once in a signature Senior Night moment.
“She hasn’t had the year that she wanted, but she’s been playing better and better, and I think in that moment, on that night, it was a great thing for her and a great thing for our team to see,” Ashworth said of Chen. “It just showed you how much everything that she’s done in her four years means to her and to be able to clinch that match for us.”
Duke took control of the match early on, using a pair of 6-3 wins—one from the duo of Bilokin and graduate student Eliza Omirou and the other from Beck and Coleman—to secure the doubles point. Beck and Coleman masterfully seized a 6-3 victory after an early deficit against Morra and Alle Sanford, giving the Blue Devils a crucial advantage after North Carolina’s top-ranked doubles team of Crawley and Elizabeth Scotty took down Duke’s Drummy and Karolina Berankova 6-2.
Needing to win just three singles matches to do what no team had done all season entering Friday—beat the Tar Heels—Duke kept the momentum going, taking five out of six first sets. The ninth-ranked Beck gave the Blue Devils their second point of the day with her 6-1, 6-4 win against the fourth-ranked, two-handed-forehand-wielding Morra.
“The emotional engagement that Chloe had [Friday] was great, and everybody fed off of that, from our players to the crowd,” said Ashworth. “Every single point she was so emotionally invested, and that kind of trickled through our entire lineup and the whole stadium, it felt like.”
The magnitude of Duke’s win cannot be overstated: Just a season ago, Duke was ousted by North Carolina 4-1 in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Less than one year later, the Blue Devils have come a long way to knock off the rival Tar Heels, not to mention a pair of other current top-10 teams in No. 3 N.C. State and No. 8 Virginia.
Friday night, then, is merely the latest jewel in the crown of what is increasingly looking like a championship resume for these Blue Devils.
“I told them after, obviously, we’re proud of them and proud of their effort, but let’s not make this the highlight of our season,” said Ashworth. “We’ve been getting better really the last three weeks, and every time we’ve stepped on the court we’ve gotten better and better and better, and we want to keep doing that.”
Duke concludes the regular season behind only North Carolina in the ACC standings, earning the No. 2 seed and a double bye in this week’s conference tournament. That means that the Blue Devils—who enter the postseason on an undeniable high note—will be back in action Friday in Rome, Ga.
“They’re excited to see what lies ahead this week and then after that as well,” said Ashworth. “But they also know that if they don’t do things the right way, we can lose to anybody in the country, and I think we’ve shown when we do things the right way that we can beat anybody in the country.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.