No. 3 Duke women's tennis faces hardest battle yet against No. 1 North Carolina

<p>Cameron Morra, a graduate transfer from North Carolina, in Duke's April 8, 2023 win against N.C. State.&nbsp;</p>

Cameron Morra, a graduate transfer from North Carolina, in Duke's April 8, 2023 win against N.C. State. 

The journey ends in an uphill battle for Duke this weekend. 

With one day left in the regular season, the third-ranked Blue Devils are making the 20-minute drive to Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill to face off against the top-ranked Tar Heels. The Friday afternoon matchup finishes up a stretch of intrastate competition after Duke defeated N.C. State and Wake Forest last week, and now the regular season culminates in its biggest challenge yet. 

“We just have to worry about ourselves first. That’s priority number one,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said Thursday.  

Even without the Tobacco Road rivalry, this matchup would be one of the hardest battles for the Blue Devils (22-2, 11-1 in the ACC) all season. With North Carolina (26-0, 12-0) boasting the nation’s No. 1 singles player, junior Fiona Crawley, and fourth-ranked doubles team Crawley and Carson Tanguilig, the Blue Devils will be challenged in both doubles and singles play. 

While the Blue Devils lead the all-time series 47-45, North Carolina has won 12 out of the last 14 matchups, in addition to winning the last five contests in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels not only have not lost at home this season but boast a 77-match home-win streak stretching back to 2018. Despite all the statistics and rankings favoring North Carolina, Ashworth emphasized that those hold no weight on the physical court. 

“It’s cliche to say, but you have to throw the rankings away and just go play,” Ashworth said. “I don’t think we approach it any differently or talk about it any differently because of rankings.” 

But it is the Tobacco Road rivalry, and it is Duke against North Carolina. In one of the greatest college rivalries in sports, the rankings may be ignorable, but the attention toward rivalry matchups is not. 

“You embrace it,” Ashworth said of the rivalry. “One of the reasons why you come to Duke or go to Carolina is to play matches like this. We have a chance to play a team that’s top five in the country, and that’s the same for them. You do everything you can to embrace that, you don’t run from that at all.”

Duke certainly is not without momentum, as it enters the contest with an 11-match win streak. The Blue Devils will also finish the regular season perfect at home, setting a new school record for the most home match wins in a regular season with 15. Coming off 4-0 and 4-3 wins against No. 24 Wake Forest and No. 7 N.C. State, respectively, the 22-2 Blue Devils have the star power to compete. 

No. 4 senior Chloe Beck appears to be up to the challenge to help neutralize North Carolina’s singles power. After collecting her 100th career singles win March 24, Beck is 19-1 this season in singles play, only losing to eighth-ranked Alexa Noel of No. 11 Miami. 

Graduate student and North Carolina transfer Cameron Morra could play a key role in an upset in the second singles spot. After battling an ankle injury last week, Ashworth says that they plan to have Morra back in the lineup Friday. Morra was a huge part of North Carolina’s team for four years as she led it to three-straight ITA National Team Indoors Championships. Regardless of the fact that she is playing against her former team, Ashworth emphasizes that Morra is focused on the competition, rather than the rivalry with her former team. 

“She’s on our side now. She’s approaching it the same way she would if she were at UNC playing still. I don’t think there’s any difference in talking with her and watching her prepare,” Ashworth said. “She’s going to battle with the girls on our side now, and she wants to do everything she can to help our team win.”

The chances that this is the only matchup between Duke and North Carolina are slim, as both are competing in the ACC tournament next week. Not only will the winner of Friday's match secure the regular season title, but also the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, in which the Blue Devils will look to defend their title from last season. 

“We just have to learn, whether we win or lose. We have to learn from it and be better the next time we play and make different choices,” Ashworth said about potentially facing North Carolina multiple times. “You have to make some little adjustments, whether you win or lose because if you don’t, other teams will.”

Regardless of next week, the Blue Devils have a chance to throw history, rankings and records to the side and upset the Tar Heels on Friday afternoon. With a strong lineup, up and down, Duke has the players and depth to give North Carolina a run for its money.

We’re 100% focused on tomorrow, not next week, three weeks from now or four weeks from now,” Ashworth said. “It’s another tremendous opportunity to show where we are and what we can do.”


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