Battling the Tigers Saturday afternoon, it was the Blue Devils who earned their stripes.
Duke defeated No. 23 Auburn 4-0 at Winston-Salem Indoor Tennis Center to secure its first victory over a ranked opponent this season. The 19th-ranked Blue Devils entered the matchup looking for a bounceback win after its 4-2 loss to Middle Tennessee Friday. What’s more, the last time Duke squared off against a top-25 opponent, the Blue Devils were narrowly defeated despite strong student support.
Saturday’s victory in the back half of ITA Kickoff Weekend was important for two reasons: It demonstrated Duke’s ability to come out on top against a ranked foe, and it illustrated the team’s resilience in the face of some early deficits.
Responding to adversity was the theme of the night, as Duke (4-2) quickly found itself down by large margins in two of its three doubles tilts. Early on, seniors Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang were down 3-1 to their Auburn counterparts. The duo quickly responded by rattling off five straight games to secure a comfortable 6-3 win. Junior Faris Khan and sophomore Connor Krug faced a 5-2 deficit in their court three match before securing three straight games to even the score at 5-5.
“[Court] three was a new team that we put together, and I think they definitely had some nerves early on, but they did a great job of digging in and getting it back to five-all,” said head coach Ramsey Smith. “One did a fantastic job with their energy, and didn’t hang their heads when they got down an early break. Really led by Michael Heller, he just did a really great job to battle back in, and they really got things rolling and gave us an opportunity to win the doubles point."
Duke was able to overcome a slow start against Auburn (3-2) to win the doubles point and head into the singles slate with a 1-0 lead. Here the Blue Devils were also looking for a strong performance, as the team could only secure two singles victories against Middle Tennessee before the Blue Raiders (3-2) secured the four points required to clinch the match.
The Blue Devils turned in the resilient showing they were looking for. The team won four out of six singles matches —doubling its total from Friday—and responded well to adversity within each match. Zhang, Khan and freshman Pedro Rodenas each lost their first sets. The three followed up the disappointing start by winning their second sets, with Rodenas and Zhang capturing victories in their third sets to put two points on the board for Duke.
“I think it was an important match for us to see how we were gonna rebound, obviously everyone was pretty devastated with the loss yesterday, our goal was to get to Chicago and we didn’t play our best yesterday. We played a lot freer, we played with more joy and more passion and I just thought from one to six we did a really good job,” said Smith. “Even within matches we did a really good job rebounding. We lost the first sets at two, three, and four, and won the second set on those courts."
Rodenas was especially impressive Saturday, notching wins in both doubles and singles for the Blue Devils. The Madrid native is putting together a fantastic season, as a three-set victory over Auburn’s Jan Galka marked his sixth-straight singles win. Rodenas has had similar success in doubles, with only one loss so far this year.
“Pedro has had a fantastic start to his dual match campaign. Today he was excellent in doubles,” said Smith. “He’s really enjoyed and embraced these dual matches, and he's really been able to step up in the big moments which is exciting to see for a freshman."
In its opening six dual matches, the team has demonstrated its ability to dominate lesser opponents and go toe-to-toe with some ranked competition, a strong sign as conference play approaches. Until Saturday afternoon, however, the team had been unable to fully capitalize on their potential and come out on top in a close contest against a high quality opponent.
So what will it take for the Blue Devils to continue to improve and reach the next level?
“I think in doubles we need to work on playing points on our terms a little bit more and being more aggressive and I thought we did a better job of doing that today,” said Smith, who also acknowledged the importance of gaining more match experience playing under pressure. “You gotta be in the fire you gotta be in those moments and have the right mindset to be out there and play freely and go after it versus being a bit careful and tentative."
Duke will look to use this momentum as it begins a three-match homestand Friday against Illinois.
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