CHAPEL HILL—It all came down to one court.
After dropping the second set 6-4 to tie his match at one set apiece, junior Andrew Dale found himself the sole player responsible for Duke’s outcome as the third set headed to its end. While the Blue Devils slowly dropped matches on court one and four, Duke needed a Dale result on court five to clinch the match against an impressive Wake Forest, and did he ever deliver.
Down 3-1 in the third set, Dale broke Luciano Tacchi’s serve and held his own, leveling the set at 3-3. Following another break and hold by Dale, he went up 5-4 with the opportunity to serve for the match. A Tacchi mistake led to Dale sealing Duke’s fate and collapsing on the court in disbelief as the scoreboard read 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in favor of Dale.
“Quite frankly, I can't even put into words the emotions I was feeling,” Dale said. “[It] feels so great just to come through the tough moments and be out here battling for my team.”
“He's so tough mentally, we call him the machine,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith added about Dale.
With help from Dale’s heroics, No. 2-seed Duke topped No. 6-seed Wake Forest 4-3 in an ACC semifinal thriller Saturday afternoon in front of a packed Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center. The win moves the Blue Devils to 20-5 on the year, with a championship date against No. 1-seed Virginia awaiting Sunday at 2 p.m. in Cary, N.C.
The postseason intensity could be felt in the air as early as the doubles point in Chapel Hill. Duke’s first doubles pairing of Garrett Johns and Pedro Rodenas fell quickly to the Demon Deacons’ Filippo Moroni and Matthew Thomson 6-3, but Faris Khan and Niroop Vallabhaneni answered for Duke with a 6-2 victory. As it went in this tightly contested matchup, the doubles point fell in the hands of a tiebreak, and Connor Krug and Teddy Truwit were unable to break Jurabek Karimov and Tacchi, falling 7-2.
“I’m really proud of how we battled in doubles, especially at [court] two to get back into a tiebreaker and give ourselves a chance,” Smith said. “Wake Forest stepped up.”
In singles, Rodenas, Andrew Zhang and Jake Krug made quick work of their opponents on courts two, three and six, respectively, in straight sets. Rodenas earned his ninth-straight win in singles, defeating Moroni 6-2, 6-1. After three singles matches, Duke led the contest 3-1.
“The consistency of the level that [Rodenas] is playing is beyond impressive,” Smith said. “That's not normal for anyone, that’s not normal for a freshman.”
Battling back from injury, Jake Krug was especially impressive, beating Juan Lopez de Azcona 7-5, 6-3.
“Jake has been out for a little bit, and we called his name today,” Smith said. “[I] couldn't be more proud of him for just being ready and prepared for the moment. He works hard every single day, whether he's in the lineup or out of the lineup.”
Then, the momentum started to shift hands.
As the volume increased from the traveling Wake Forest fans, so did the quality of their play as Melios Efstathiou and Thomson came back from down a set to beat Duke’s Johns and Connor Krug on courts one and four.
“It was a great college tennis match from start to finish,” Smith said. “Everyone [was] pushing in the same direction. I’m just proud of all 10 guys.”
The shot-making on court one was apparent all afternoon as both Efstathiou and Johns displayed the skill that has made them two of the top players in the ACC. Johns had opportunities to break Efstathiou in the third set but fell short 7-5, 1-6, 4-6.
Luckily for the Blue Devils, Dale saved their ACC championship hopes on court five, and Duke made the happy trip home to Durham.
Duke’s victory Saturday was its second in two days after the team defeated No. 7-seed Louisville 4-0 in the quarterfinals Friday evening. Rodenas, Connor Krug and Dale were victorious in straight sets on singles courts two, four and five, respectively, to clinch a trip to the ACC semifinal.
However, the match did not always look so clear-cut. In doubles, Duke’s third pair of Khan and Vallabhaneni delivered in a 7-6 (5) tiebreak victory over Louisville's Fabien Salle and Will Mayew to clinch an opening point for Duke after a loss on court two. As they have all year, Johns and Rodenas claimed a 6-2 victory on court one.
“We had to pull one out of the hat in doubles,” Smith said of his team’s performance Friday. “I thought we did a really good job maintaining that momentum and got some really good starts [in singles].”
Just a year ago, Duke’s ACC tournament dreams were crushed in an opening-round loss to Clemson. Now, the script is flipped, and Duke has the opportunity to play for an ACC championship Sunday afternoon for the first time since 2012.
“We're gonna enjoy this for about 30 minutes, and then get back to work,” Smith said. “[We are] looking forward to leaving it on the court tomorrow.”
In the ACC championship match Sunday, Duke’s sole ACC loss, Virginia, awaits.
“I think we're the underdogs, and that gives us a lot of fighting spirit,” Dale said. “Virginia is a great team, but I think anything can happen in an ACC championship match.”
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