While Duke fell to eventual national champions Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, a couple special individuals still had a chance to compete on the national level.
Freshman Pedro Rodenas remarkably advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Singles Championships, while senior Garrett Johns fell in the first round. They teamed up in doubles and advanced to the round of 16 as well.
“Great team season,” said head coach Ramsey Smith. “Really proud of these last two guys that were able to make the NCAA tournament. They both reached All-American status… These two have been our leaders on the court, they've been playing at the top of the lineup and they're also the leaders off the court doing things the right way.”
Rodenas, the young David facing college tennis Goliath and No. 1-seed Eliot Spizzirri in the Sweet 16, battled incredibly hard and demonstrated poise on the biggest stage.
Spizzirri had only lost once all year at the No. 1 singles position for Texas, and was a favorite to take the entire tournament. He led 5-3, 40-0 in the first set, but Rodenas valiantly staved off four set points en route to a break of Spizziri’s serve. Rodenas took the lead at 5-5, 40-15 with two chances to break, but this was Spizziri’s turn to take a chance away from the Madrid native, holding serve and winning the first set 7-5.
Despite lingering cramping from the day before, Rodenas did not give in. He quickly turned it around in the beginning of the second set, breaking Spizzirri’s serve and taking the advantage 5-4 with two chances to clinch the set. However, Rodenas faltered, doubling faulting and hitting an unforced error into the net.
The second set eventually went to a tiebreak, and Spizzirri was dominant from the start. He led 6-2 in the first-to-seven tiebreak and this was too big of a lead for Rodenas to overcome. He dumped a forehand into the net, and that ended a remarkable season for the freshman phenom, as Spizzirri emerged victorious 7-5, 7-6 (3).
“He had a great season, just really excited that he was able to make this tournament and have an opportunity to showcase his ability against the best players in the country,” said Smith “I’m extremely proud of him and even not being 100% the way he played against Spizzirri…he just competed so well and it was great tennis and it was heck of a week for Pedro.”
In the first round, Rodenas made quick work of Steven Forman of Northwestern, winning 6-4, 6-3. Perhaps his most impressive win this season came in the second round, where the King’s College product bested nationally seeded and 14th-ranked Sebastian Dominko of Notre Dame.
After splitting the first two sets, Rodenas was up 5-2 in the third with a commanding lead. However, Dominko fought back to make it 5-4. Nevertheless, a double fault by Dominko gave the Spaniard a match point.
On this point, a lob attempt fell long and Rodenas officially became an All-American with his highest ranked win of the season. In addition, he moved up on the all-time Duke list for overall wins in a season by a freshman, as he is now tied with Geoff Grant and Chris Mengel for fourth with 33 total wins.
“He's obviously extremely talented, but he's also a great gamer and great competitor,” said Smith. “I didn't know he could be consistent this early in his career but that was probably what impressed me the most was how consistently he played at a high level.”
It was a disappointing singles result for the nationally seeded Johns, who qualified for the individual tournament for the second-straight year. He fell in the first round to Texas’ Siem Woldeab 6-4, 6-4.
“He played a Texas player who had a very aggressive game and played extremely well,” said Smith. “[Johns] had some chances early but couldn't quite capitalize and that was just such a tough match for him. But…it was a heck of a season for him.”
Meanwhile, the 25th-ranked pair of Johns and Rodenas teamed up in the NCAA Doubles Championships after a remarkable regular season.
In the first round, Johns and Rodeans were tasked with taking on No. 4-seed Trent Bryde and Ethan Quinn of Georgia. The Blue Devil tandem stepped up to the challenge and knocked off the fourth-seeded pair 6-4, 7-6 (5).
In the first set, Johns and Rodenas returned the ball remarkably, breaking Georgia's serve twice. Moreover, they held their own serve well, and a Rodenas volley gave Duke the first set. The second was tighter, as it went to a tiebreak after the teams tied 6-6. A shot by the Bulldogs went just long, ending the tiebreak and the match.
“They played awesome, it was really high level,” said Smith. “That was the day after Pedro had some physical issues so Garrett stepped up and that was clearly the best doubles I've seen him play I think ever.”
They advanced to the round of 16 to face Rafa Izquierdo Luque and Joseph Wayand of N.C. State. Despite starting behind 5-2, the Blue Devils fought hard to even the set at five apiece. However, the Wolfpack broke right back and took the set 7-5.
Johns and Rodenas started off the second set much better, and remained ahead up until the very end. Just like the first round, the second set went to a tiebreak. While Duke led 5-3 in the tiebreak, N.C. State rallied off three straight points to give them a match point. Rodenas missed a volley into the net and that ended the season for the two Blue Devils.
“Credit N.C. State for playing really well, we certainly didn't play at that same level as we did the day before,” said Smith. “I think a lot of that has to do with how we were doing physically.”
Considering both players earned All-American singles honors, this was still a very successful season for them. As a team, Duke finished ranked No. 11 in the country, the highest team finish since 2015.
“These two have been our leaders on the court, they've been playing at the top of the lineup. And they're also the leaders off the court doing things the right way. They're both very professional minded and it's just really exciting how far they both come.”
The future looks bright for this Duke team because both Johns and Rodenas are returning, in addition to the entire top six singles lineup.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.