Duke men's tennis picks up ranked wins against N.C. State, Wake Forest in return to Durham

Duke sophomores Connor Krug and Jake Krug in a Jan. 21 win against N.C. Central.
Duke sophomores Connor Krug and Jake Krug in a Jan. 21 win against N.C. Central.

Tennis has historically been regarded as a gentleman's sport, dominated by softened clapping, controlled celebrating and minimal feuding. But in the highly anticipated matchup between Duke and N.C. State, there wasn’t much love in the air — instead, it was fierce competition, pure passion and a perfervid desire to win. 

In the scorching hot Durham sun Sunday, two of the most competitive tennis squads in the nation rallied it out at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Fortunately for the 20th-ranked Blue Devils, it was Duke and its clutch-time brilliance that shone the brightest. 

After returning home from a six-game voyage, head coach Ramsey Smith and his crew settled back down in the comforts of their own courts, following up a 4-3 Friday win against No. 16 Wake Forest with a 5-2 defeat of No. 23 N.C. State to close the weekend.

"It was great to be back at home. I think we got a lot tougher and figured out a lot about ourselves with the six-match road stretch,” Smith said. 

As the crowd grew loud and the claps thunderous, Duke’s premier tandem of Garrett Johns and Pedro Rodenas secured the first win of the day for the Blue Devils (15-5, 8-1 in the ACC), beating Robin Catry and Luca Staeheli 7-5. 

The Wolfpack (12-7, 6-2), however, stole the doubles point away with a dominant tiebreaker showing against Duke’s Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang. In the final moments of the match, Zhang struggled to find a way to win over points: His unforced errors plagued the duo as his aggression on returns seemingly diminished. 

Zhang’s struggles, however, were short-lived. On the singles court, having swapped out his signature Nike headband for a bright white Duke cap, the team co-captain put on an offensive masterclass. 

Quick on his feet, he returned Braden Shick’s powerful serves and well-placed hits; on Schick’s serves, the Blue Devil’s groundstrokes gave him a competitive edge over his less experienced counterpart. He cruised past Shick 6-2 in the first set; a couple of break points later, he won the second set 6-1, handing Duke its first singles point of the day.

After taking a quick sip from his green Gatorade bottle, Zhang dialed into his teammates’ matches on neighboring courts. His drenched white shirt off, black athletic tape carefully taped onto his serving shoulder, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., product delivered encouraging words, emanating his winning energy. 

That energy was well-received on the top court: No. 17 Johns, the team’s other co-captain, followed in Zhang’s footsteps shortly thereafter, knocking down No. 52 Rafa Izquierdo Luque 6-2, 6-3 without much trouble. 

"The captains led the way. They were awesome,” Smith said. “To win quickly at [courts] one and three at two of their best spots, that just gave everyone else confidence and we were able to build some team momentum after losing the doubles point."

With three singles matches advancing into the third set, Sunday’s intrastate matchup stood balanced at 2-2. Both teams had an equal chance of winning the matchup, and both teams anxiously awaited a spark of energy. 

And that is precisely what the Blue Devils got. Connor Krug lifted his fists up, looking toward his teammates, after winning a break point on court four; Rodenas screamed in joy as his teammates retorted to him in Spanish after a break point on court two; Andrew Dale silenced the energetic Fons Van Sambeek after a break point on court five. 

The rest of team, having already finished their matches, yelled “Whose house?” to the crowd, which echoed back: “Our house.” 

A sequence of hard-hit, perfectly placed forehands by Krug later, the entire team dashed to court four in palpable ecstasy. The sophomore had just clinched the match for Duke with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 win against Catry.

"It's a great feeling to clinch the match. That feeling is exactly why we all play the sport and why we spend hours on the practice court,” Krug said. “I think there is nothing like it, so I just appreciate those moments whenever they happen.”

As N.C. State’s players cooled down, shouting and giggling sounded from underneath the bleachers. It was Duke’s celebration of its thrilling performance. 

Before Sunday, Duke upset Wake Forest (21-8, 5-3) in Friday’s match in Durham. That win was clinched in extraordinary fashion by Rodenas (7-6, 3-6, 6-4) on court two.

Continuing to ride the adrenaline from an undefeated weekend, the Blue Devils will suit up for their final road trip of the season, a Saturday matchup just across town at No. 13 North Carolina. 


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