On a bleak and rainy Sunday, nothing was dreary about the tennis being played inside Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center. Duke split its doubleheader, losing a nail-biter to No. 16 Harvard before following it up with a 7-0 sweep against North Carolina Central.
Prior to the doubleheader, the 20th-ranked Blue Devils faced Memphis Jan. 20, when they were victorious 5-2. Seniors Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang, the No. 49 doubles team in the country, were the clinching doubles victory for the Blue Devils, winning 7-5. Zhang also recorded a singles victory, along with freshman Pedro Rodenas and sophomore twins Connor Krug and Jake Krug.
“Our focus has been to play with energy, play aggressively and have fun. Those are the three main things and overall I feel like we've been able to do that,” said head coach Ramsey Smith.
Against Harvard, after senior Garrett Johns and Rodenas lost their doubles match 6-1, the final two doubles matches both came down to the wire. Juniors Niroop Vallabhaneni and Faris Khan were entering a tiebreak to decide their match. At the same time, Heller and Zhang were down a break 6-5, and it looked all but over for the Blue Devils’ top doubles pair. However, clutch returns from both Zhang and Heller brought the set back to even. Unfortunately for them, immediately before starting their tiebreaker, a Vallabhaneni missed volley gave the set to the Crimson, clinching the doubles point for Harvard.
“Overall, I've been pleased with our doubles,” said Smith. “Obviously we weren't able to finish today. We put ourselves in position and it just came down to execution.”
With the Crimson up 1-0, it was imperative for the Blue Devils to win a majority of the six available singles points to prevail in the match. It was clear that this would be a tough task and almost simultaneously, Johns and Rodenas clinched their first sets. Top-seeded Johns was down 3-0 to begin the match, but after a resilient few games, he fought back and won the set 6-4.
At this point, both teams had won three of the opening sets in the singles round. The match was either team’s for the taking, with elite tennis being played by both schools.
Jake Krug was the first singles victory for the Blue Devils, making quick work of Harvard freshman Valdemar Pape 6-4, 6-1. He had a phenomenal weekend, going undefeated in two singles matches along with a doubles victory against North Carolina Central.
“His week was amazing, he’s the hardest worker on the team,” said Smith. “He just needed to get some confidence in the dual match environment and he's certainly done that.”
Minutes later, Khan was defeated by Harvard senior Steven Sun 6-3, 6-2. The Crimson extended their overall lead to 2-1, and the momentum appeared to be shifting toward Harvard. With Rodenas down 2-5, Johns down 2-4 and Zhang down 3-5 all in second sets, things looked bleak for Duke.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the momentum shifted. All three of these sets turned even at 5-5, 4-4 and 5-5, respectively. Meanwhile, Connor Krug won his second set in a nail-biting tiebreaker after losing the first set 6-1.
“I thought we competed really well. We played with all the energy and a lot of passion. In these matches against the top teams it comes down to a point or two here or there,” said Smith.
Despite this Blue Devil advancement, the Crimson proved to be the stronger team in the end, as Zhang was eventually defeated by junior Henry von der Schulenburg 6-4, 7-5, and the clinching victory was sophomore Daniel Milavsky defeating Connor Krug in three sets, 6-1, 6-7, 6-1.
“I think all those tight moments are really gonna help us next weekend and moving forward against the really good teams,” said Smith.
After a brief rest, the Blue Devils returned to the court in hopes of ending the day on a positive note, welcoming North Carolina Central for the nightcap. This match did just that, as Duke made quick work of the Eagles.
The doubles point was easily clinched by the Blue Devils, as the tandems of Johns and Rodenas and Connor and Jake Krug both were victorious 6-1.
“If we win that doubles point, I don't see too many teams in the country that can win four singles against our lineup,” said Smith.
The Krug twins were flashy in their victory, making many tough shots using their athleticism and length. Immediately after they finished, Johns raced a return past Eagles’ freshman Neiman Sneed to officially secure a 1-0 lead in the match.
As singles play got underway, the Blue Devils flexed their muscle on the Eagles, jumping out to early leads in every singles match. Duke quickly claimed the first sets of every match, giving up no more than two games in each contest.
“We had the Cameron Crazies out and the energy was awesome,” said Smith. “I thought our guys were really locked in but they came out, played aggressive and had fun.”
Junior Andrew Dale and Heller were both victorious in singles play after sitting out against Harvard. Dale defeated Eagles’ freshman Facundo Olmedo 6-2, 6-0, earning his first singles win of the season.
Heller, who is known for his net skills in doubles, demonstrated his all-around game by defeating Shaka Cristellotti 6-0, 6-0. Heller's fiery forehand propelled him to victory, and he was the only straight sweep of the day for Duke.
Other singles victories for the Blue Devils were Johns, Rodenas, Connor Krug and Khan.
The Blue Devils will next take a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the ITA Kickoff Weekend, where they will first face Middle Tennessee Jan. 27.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity first-year and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.