Duke men's tennis falls short to Northwestern in top-25 thriller

Andrew Zhang (left) and Michael Heller (right) celebrate during a Jan. 22 match against Harvard.
Andrew Zhang (left) and Michael Heller (right) celebrate during a Jan. 22 match against Harvard.

Contrary to the majority of Duke’s campus the morning after Saturday night’s men's basketball victory against North Carolina, Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center was awake and rocking Sunday for a suspenseful men’s tennis matchup.

No. 25 Duke did not manage to close out No. 23 Northwestern, falling 4-3 Sunday afternoon after more than three hours of play. In a top-25 matchup, the Blue Devils failed to extend their winning streak to three following a solid 4-3 win at home Friday against another Big Ten foe in Illinois. 

“I think it was a great college tennis match,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Didn't go our way, but [I’m] really proud of our guys and proud of the fight.”

Locked at three points apiece, the decisive match of the afternoon rested on court six as Duke’s Michael Heller found himself in the third set against Gleb Blekher. After breaking Blekher’s serve in back-to-back games, Heller dropped the last two for a 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 defeat, and the cheering Northwestern supporting cast rushed the court. 

“Heller has been listed nine in our lineup, and he stepped in and was ready for the moment,” Smith said. “Obviously a very tough loss for the guys, but [I] feel really good about where we're at.” 

To start the nonconference matchup, Northwestern went up 1-0 as the second doubles pairing of Steven Forman and Felix Nordby took down Duke’s Garrett Johns and Pedro Rodenas in a tightly contested fight for the doubles point. In a true back-and-forth affair, including two Northwestern breaks and one by Duke, Rodenas fell victim to a double fault to fall 7-5.

Finishing prior to the second doubles match, Duke’s first doubles pairing of Heller and Andrew Zhang fended off the Wildcats’ pair of Ivan Yatsuk and Simen Bratholm 6-4 on court one, and the third doubles match saw Northwestern’s Trice Pickens and Natan Spears defeat Faris Khan and Niroop Vallabhaneni 6-4. 

“[The doubles matches are] only one point, [but] it does create a lot of momentum,” Smith said. “Our goal, win or lose the doubles point, is to come out and try to get things going in singles.” 

Heading into the singles matches down a point, Duke had its work cut out for itself. Across the six courts, five went past 10 games in the first set. 

Among the chaos, Zhang tallied his second victorious set of the day, winning the first set 7-6 after a 7-3 tiebreaker. The senior then dropped the second set 6-4, but rallied in the decisive third set to come out on top 6-1. A bright spot for Duke, Zhang flashed his athleticism all afternoon long to defeat Yatsuk.

“Zhang competing, scrapping and finding a way, against a very tricky, tough opponent, put us in position,” Smith said. “We had three matches [left] and needed one.” 

Also notching wins for the Blue Devils in the singles matches were sophomore Connor Krug and Rodenas. Although needing 12 games in each set, Krug managed to overcome Pickens—who held a lead in the second set—7-5, 7-5. Krug’s length was crucial for him in this one against a talented Pickens, who refused to go away. 

In addition, Rodenas successfully bounced back from his doubles loss to defeat Bratholm. In the second set, Rodenas broke Bratholm’s serve in a crucial spot to go up 5-2, and although he dropped the next two games, the freshman held serve to win the match 7-5, 6-4 and celebrated with a yelling fist pump to his teammates. 

“Pedro's great. Tough finish to his doubles … and I know he was a little bit discouraged from that,” Smith said. “He did a tremendous job mentally bouncing back.”

Suddenly, Duke had leapt into a 3-1 lead, but Northwestern would not go away. No. 4 Johns lost back-to-back tiebreakers, dropping his match to Foreman 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4). To win both, Foreman hit exceptional winners, including a backhand slice that just caught the line in the first set. 

Khan, after comfortably winning the first set 6-2, fell to Presley Thieneman 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, setting up the grand finale on court six. 

“It’s a long season, we’re going to keep building,” Smith said.

The Blue Devils’ next outing wraps up their three-match homestand, this time against East Tennessee State at 4 p.m. Friday before a Sunday afternoon date at Kentucky. 


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