As students are leaving campus for the summer, Duke will have to stay a little bit longer, for good reason. The 12th-seeded Blue Devils defeated Cornell 4-1 Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
In the first round of action Saturday afternoon, Duke bested UNC Wilmington 4-2. However, the Blue Devils faced some adversity early on, losing the doubles point. Senior Michael Heller, who typically pairs up with senior Andrew Zhang to make Duke’s second-seeded doubles pairing, is still dealing with an injury and did not play this weekend.
Juniors Niroop Vallebhaneni and Faris Khan replaced Zhang and Heller as they played on court three. After Garrett Johns and Pedro Rodenas won and Connor Krug and Teddy Truwit lost, the doubles point came down to Vallabhaneni and Khan. Despite winning three crucial deuce points during the set, they lost a tough set in a tiebreak.
“I thought it obviously wasn't our best performance but I thought court three still gave us a chance to win the doubles point,” said associate head coach Maciek Sykut. “In the moment I was proud of the way they bounced back off of the doubles point,”
They did play much better in singles, and Rodenas, Johns and Zhang won at the top three courts. On court six, Jake Krug clinched the match with a 7-5, 6-3 triumph over Alex de Gabriele.
"It felt great,” said Krug on clinching the victory. “We've been playing well and working hard all season so I was happy to see us get the win.”
There was clearly a different focus for Duke (22-6, 11-1 in the ACC) to open the doubles rounds against Cornell. On all three courts, the Blue Devils took early leads.
Johns and Rodenas continued their winning ways, defeating Adit Sinha and Nathan Mao 6-3 to finish first. The tandem, who have only lost one match since Feb. 5, qualified for the NCAA Doubles Championships later this month.
“It's not normal to be this consistent,” said head coach Ramsey Smith. “Usually, [the doubles set] just comes down to a point or two, but they're just so tough in the big moments and I can't overlook what they're doing at the top court.”
Connor Krug and Truwit broke early, and led 2-0 after a strong service game from Krug. However, the Big Red (18-7) fought back, evening the match at three apiece and eventually taking a 5-4 lead. With Cornell serving for the set, Samuel Paquette and Petar Teodorovic took the game and won 6-4.
As with the day before, the doubles point came down to Vallabhaneni and Khan. This time, they ended up on top. Leading 6-5, 40-30, Khan hit two remarkable forehands to force an error, and the Blue Devils took a 1-0 lead in the match.
“It was just so cool for them to get that exact same situation the next day,” said Smith. “They did a good job of just playing aggressive and taking it and they just really trusted and believed in themselves.”
This momentum carried into the singles courts, as Duke grabbed control of the match. Not surprisingly, the first player to finish his opening set was Rodenas, dominating Vladislav Melnic 6-1. Every other Blue Devil followed suit, and the home team swept the first sets across the board.
“It was an awesome start and we reinforced that we needed to go out there and take it and not look around and see who else is gonna win the points,” said Smith.
Melnic retired early in the second set, and Rodenas gave Duke a 2-0 lead. The freshman from Madrid, Spain, is currently riding a 12-match winning streak and finished the home slate undefeated with the victory Sunday.
Junior Andrew Dale was the next Blue Devil to conclude his match, taking care of Mao 6-3, 6-3. Dale has also played really well recently, winning seven of his last eight completed matches.
Nevertheless, the Big Red did not go away easily, taking early second-set leads on courts one and three. The second sets across the board were much more competitive, and the match was not yet set in stone, even as Duke led 3-0.
Teodorovic took the second set from Connor Krug 6-4 on court four, and Paquette bested Khan 6-2 in the second. While Jake Krug played on court six Saturday, Khan replaced him on that same court against Cornell.
“I credit Cornell for making that desperation surge in the second set,” said Smith. “I also think we got a touch complacent and maybe lost that sense of urgency thinking that we were in control.”
On court one, Johns earned a big break to even the second set, eventually taking it to a tiebreaker. Right next to him on court three, Zhang was down 5-6 and tied the set, advancing to a tiebreaker as well. Therefore, Duke needed just one of these to clinch the match.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, neither of these came to fruition as Zhang and Johns both fell in their respective tiebreakers.
Meanwhile on court six, Khan was off to a very fast start in his third set against Paquette, leading 5-2 after Connor Krug lost his match to give Cornell its first point. A Paquette forehand drifted long, and the Blue Devils breathed a sigh of relief as they officially advanced to the next round.
"It feels surreal. We've put in a lot of effort up to this point as a team, working so hard every day and it showed here,” said Khan.
Duke now advances to the super regionals for a rematch against No. 5-seed Virginia, the team that defeated the Blue Devils in the ACC championship.
“[Virginia has] set the standard in the conference, but I see how our team is building and growing and we're absolutely ready to beat them,” said Smith. “It's gonna be a battle. It's going to be a challenge, but there's not one guy out there that doesn't think we can beat them and advance to Orlando.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity first-year and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.