Duke continued its dominant NCAA tournament run Friday with a 4-1 defeat of No. 14-seed Georgia at Ambler Tennis Stadium in Durham. The win advances the fourth-seeded Blue Devils to the quarterfinals in Champaign, Ill., and places the squad just three victories away from the program’s second NCAA Championship. What’s more, the 4-1 defeat of Georgia is the fourth straight match in which Duke has allowed no more than a single point on the scoreboard. Since its ACC tournament semifinal against Miami, Duke has outscored its opponents 16-3—a truly lopsided statistic that showcases just how well the team is performing late in the season.
Friday’s match began with a hard-fought doubles point, as Duke and Georgia each won a match 6-3, leaving the Blue Devils' doubles fate in the hands of senior Margaryta Bilokin and graduate student Eliza Omirou. With the set tied at 4-4, the duo won back-to-back games to secure the 6-4 victory and give Duke a 1-0 advantage going into the singles.
"I’m definitely pleased with how we closed out the doubles," said head coach Jamie Ashworth. "I thought we started off a little tentative, with not as much emotion as we’ve been playing with, there was probably a little bit of nerves in there, but the way we closed out the doubles was what we needed to do to get some momentum going into the singles."
Even with a 1-0 lead, punching a ticket to the quarterfinals would be no cakewalk for the Blue Devils. Duke tends to have an aggressive playing style in singles—its players like to attack early, strike the ball with pace, put shots away and keep points short. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, play much more defensively and often appear to win matches by wearing out the opponent with consistent shot-making and long rallies. When these two styles collide, the more aggressive player often becomes frustrated and hits risky shots too early in the rally. As a result, Duke’s singles lineup had to handle opponents who took the team out of its element and didn’t acquiesce to the Blue Devils’ typical style of play.
"They make you hit so many balls, it’s a really physical style of tennis, and we don’t play a lot of teams like that. They did a good job of taking us out of what we like to do," said Ashworth. "They make you play long points and you start going for a little bit more and a little bit more and you end up missing by two inches because you’re trying to go for a little bit more so they won’t run the ball down."
However, in a testament to the team’s fantastic season, the Blue Devils overcame the Bulldogs’ defensive style and only dropped one match in the singles. With straight-set wins from Emma Jackson and Chloe Beck and a come-from-behind three-set triumph from Georgia Drummy, Duke was off to the quarterfinals. Put simply, Duke’s offense was too much for Georgia’s defense to handle.
"I thought that when we had the opportunity to finish points we did a good job of that. I thought we stayed true to what we do well," said Ashworth. "I thought we had to move forward a little bit more. I thought Georgia Drummy had to come in more than she usually does. But we were able to do that, they trusted the work they put in and we were able to get three singles matches there."
The Sweet 16 victory is yet another example of the team’s ability to perform under pressure when it matters most. Despite the 4-1 scoreline, the match was tight from the get-go, and there were many moments in which just a few poor points could have swung momentum in the Bulldogs' favor. Duke was just two games away from losing the doubles point before Bilokin and Omirou came through. Without that early point, a victory would have been a much more difficult task, especially given how close the singles matches were—half of the courts went to a third set.
In singles, Bilokin lost in straight sets to Georgia's Ania Hertel, and both Ellie Coleman and Kelly Chen were in tight third sets—Chen was just a game away from defeat—when Drummy clinched the victory for the Blue Devils. If the senior from Ireland had not battled back after losing the first set, Duke could easily have seen its season come to an end on its home court.
Friday's match speaks to Duke’s ability to excel in crucial moments and effectively handle the pressure of college tennis’s biggest stage. So what explains the team’s clutch ability to weather this pressure when it matters most?
"I think we’ve been trying to deflect that and look at it as another opportunity to play together as a group. We haven’t really talked about the what-ifs if we win or lose the match," said Ashworth. "The pressure definitely builds, there’s no hiding from it, there’s no running from it. But I told them after the match, we need to do a really good job of appreciating and understanding what we have accomplished getting to the quarters of this thing so far. There’s 260 something D1 women's teams, and there’s eight left that have a chance and we are one of the eight."
There is certainly much to appreciate this year for Duke. With a 22-3 overall record, a conference title and an NCAA quarterfinal appearance, the program is having one of its most successful seasons in recent memory. The Blue Devils are red-hot and have not lost a match since late March.
Just three more opponents stand between the Blue Devils and the very top of college tennis. They return to play Friday against the winner of Saturday's match between No. 6-seed N.C. State and No. 11-seed California.
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