CARY, N.C.—Throughout the season, the Blue Devils have found success up and down their lineup; their team-wide dominance is exactly what earned them the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.
But, missing just one player can throw an entire team off its rhythm — especially when that player is Chloe Beck.
Beck, the No. 4 singles player in the nation and part of the No. 46 doubles pair alongside Cameron Morra, was absent from Friday’s match in order to play professionally in the ITF W100 tournament in Charleston, S.C. Her absence left a hole large enough to sink Duke’s back-to-back championship hopes, as the team failed to advance past Georgia Tech.
In just their fourth loss of the season, the Blue Devils fell to the seventh-seeded Yellow Jackets 4-3 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday, dropping the doubles point and failing to come back despite a stronger showing in singles.
“Georgia Tech played the bigger points better than us today. We gave ourselves a chance, we had some leads. I felt like we were sitting back and hoping they would miss,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “That's not how we play.”
The final domino came on singles court two, where Duke sophomore Emma Jackson took on sophomore Kylie Bilchev. After winning on courts three, five and six, the Blue Devils had taken back control of the match, leading 3-2.
Then, freshman Alejandra Cruz clinched her match against sophomore Ellie Coleman on court four, and moments later, Bilchev broke Jackson’s serve to take a 5-3 lead in the second set. Now just a game away from pulling off the upset, the entire Georgia Tech squad yelled their encouragement for Bilchev from the adjacent court.
Despite earning two break points and fighting until the very last serve, Jackson fell 7-5, 6-3 and as the Yellow Jackets swarmed the victorious Bilchev, the Blue Devils were forced to accept defeat.
“The singles were obviously competitive and close,” Ashworth said. “But, when it was deuce points or some matches that we’re up 3-1, 2-0, that kind of stuff, that's where we've got to really step on it and play our best tennis. And, I think that's where we laid off.”
In each of Duke’s three previous losses this season, it did not earn the essential doubles point. Without Beck in the lineup, both of the top two doubles changed partners. The Blue Devils fell behind on all three courts and ultimately dropped matches on courts one and three.
Not only did taking the doubles point give the Yellow Jackets the confidence to hang with the Blue Devils, but it meant that instead of needing three singles victories, Duke needed four. Despite picking up the intensity in singles and winning half of the matches, the Blue Devils came out on the wrong side of the ledger.
Early on in singles play, nearly every break Duke managed was met quickly with a Georgia Tech counterpunch. Courts two, four, five and six all went to at least 10 games in the first set, and the Blue Devils could never find a decisive moment in the match.
For example, graduate student Brianna Shvets battled all the way to a tiebreak with Kate Sharabura on court six. Just moments after Shvets edged out the set, graduate student Georgia Drummy won her match against Jain Mahak, 6-1, 6-1.
The Yellow Jackets had their response on court four, where Cruz came back from down 4-3 to take the first set of her match against Ellie Coleman 6-4. Junior Carol Lee also dominated on court one, winning 6-1, 6-4 against Morra.
Ultimately, the absence of Beck pushed Morra, Coleman and Jackson a court up, making it difficult for the Blue Devils to keep pace. Despite Ashworth saying that Beck’s absence was “not an excuse to lose,” the team certainly looked different without its top player. Instead of setting the tempo, Duke was the team playing catch-up.
“I just told them after we played that, no matter who we play, no matter where that is, we've got to be the aggressive ones,” Ashworth said.
The Blue Devils will have another chance to compete this season in the NCAA tournament. After completing its gauntlet run through the competitive ACC, the team awaits its seeding. For a team that spent all season near the top of the rankings and advanced to the Final Four a year ago, expectations remain high.
Anna Newberry contributed reporting.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.