As the saying goes, if at first you do not succeed, try, try again. After failing to reach the ITA National Team Indoor Championships each of the past two years, the Blue Devils punched their ticket Sunday with a 4-1 victory against Wisconsin.
Making quick work of VCU Saturday, Duke faced its first true test of the season against a Wisconsin team that refused to quit. While the Blue Devils won five of six first sets to take a commanding advantage in singles play, the Badgers bounced back by winning four second sets. The momentum was squarely on Wisconsin’s side until graduate student Cameron Morra and senior Chloe Beck won their matches, pushing Duke one win away from a victory.
The Blue Devils found their clincher in senior Georgia Drummy, who has been battling a back injury all year after earning All-American honors last season. The Dublin, Ireland native fell behind a break early in her third set against Taylor Cataldi but battled back to tie the set at three. After trading services and breaks, Drummy found herself up 5-4 with two opportunities to clinch and made good on the second, winning the match for Duke and earning her first individual victory of the season.
“It was an amazing feeling to clinch [the match],” Drummy told The Chronicle. “I saw that it was close on court two and court six, so I was just kind of hoping that we'd keep the momentum and stay positive. It was an amazing experience being able to clinch that ticket to Seattle.”
The crucial doubles point did not come easily for Duke. While sophomore Emma Jackson and graduate student Iuliia Bryzgalova easily dealt with Taylor Cataldi and Ariel Johnson on court three, winning 6-2, courts one and two were back-and-forth affairs.
On court two, sophomore Ellie Coleman and junior Karolina Berankova traded blows with Wisconsin early, with each side coming out on top of long rallies to secure breaks. Still, the Badgers’ Alina Mukhortova and Xinyu Cai pulled away with a break and service victory that stretched their lead to 4-2.
At the same time, a nailbiter was brewing on court one. The 13th-ranked pair of Beck and Morra found themselves in a heavyweight bout against Wisconsin’s top duo. Long rallies and a flurry of breaks brought the game to a deadlock by the time court three finished.
So, when Wisconsin took down Duke 6-3 on court two, all eyes turned to court one, where Wisconsin was serving down 4-5. Now at a deuce, after a double fault from Maria Sholokhova, the Blue Devils were able to come out with the first point of the match.
“Doubles was huge ... I'm glad that we were able to get through that. I'm glad that we were able to handle it, handle ourselves with grace under pressure there,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We didn't give in [or] fold.”
Beck and Morra were the only Blue Devils to win their matches in straight sets. After taking the first set against Sholokhova 6-4, Morra turned it up to win the second set 6-1. Beck had to fight her way through a 6-3, 7-5 victory against Ava Markham, who had the No. 3-ranked singles player on the ropes multiple times.
The rest of the Duke team found themselves in even more dicey situations. Bryzgalova lost to Cai in straight sets, and Drummy, Jackson and Coleman all lost their second sets after winning the first. For a Duke team that had blown through their schedule thus far, Sunday marked the first time they had to overcome adversity.
“[Today was] the first time where people kind of punched back and hit back at us ... The starts of our second sets across the board weren’t very good, and it seemed like, ‘Okay, we won the first set, let's take a deep breath and relax.’ We can't do that,” Ashworth said. “I think across the board, we were down to 1-0, 2-0. I'm proud of the effort to come back there.”
Saturday’s semifinal matchup against VCU went far more smoothly, as all three doubles matches, and all six singles matches were either won or led at abandonment by Duke. In fact, they did not drop a set to the Rams.
Clinching the match for the Blue Devils was graduate student Brianna Shvets, who was swapped for Drummy in Sunday’s match. Between the two days, Duke had six different players win singles matches, a testament to their depth.
They will need this depth in the upcoming weeks, as they play three matches next weekend and head to Seattle for the ITA National Team Indoor Championships Feb. 10.
“We want to have an opportunity to play against the best teams in the country, and [Nationals is] the next opportunity to do that,” Ashworth said. “You know, it's usually the top 12, 13 teams in the country. And it gives you a good look, not just where we stand, but a good look at other teams as you move forward through the spring.”
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