No. 19 Duke women’s tennis falls to No. 8 North Carolina at home despite numerous tight sets

Shavit Kimchi lost five second-set games in a row against Fiona Crawley.
Shavit Kimchi lost five second-set games in a row against Fiona Crawley.

The Duke-North Carolina rivalry is a tale as old as time; the strife between the two schools has stretched across decades. However, Blue Devil men’s basketball isn’t the only team whose season has been plagued by the Tar Heels. Fresh off two straight wins against ACC opponents, No. 19 Duke women's tennis struggled to find the mental toughness necessary to upset No. 8 North Carolina. 

The match ultimately came down to one thing: winning the points that mattered the most. What the final 4-1 score fails to reveal is the competitiveness of the sets from beginning to end. Of the seven sets that ended in a 7-5 or 7-6 score, the Tar Heels claimed six. 

“I thought that Carolina did a much better job than us in the big points, playing well when they needed to,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “To me, that says mentally that they were tougher than we were in those moments, because we were right there in those moments at the end of sets and gave ourselves chances and gave ourselves opportunities. But credit to them, they just played the bigger points.”

Freshman Shavit Kimchi, playing in the No. 1 singles position Saturday, gave herself these opportunities but couldn’t seem to close out the match when it came down to it. Early in the first set, the Sdey Hemed, Israel native was on the offensive and hitting forehand winners against Tar Heel Fiona Crawley almost every other point. Neck-and-neck up to that point, the first set eventually came down to a last-minute break of serve by Crawley followed by a hold. Kimchi came back in the second set with a vengeance, pushing Crawley side to side on the baseline and putting away volleys at the net to go up 4-1. Up at 5-2, Kimchi had the chance to clinch the set and keep the Blue Devils (12-6, 5-4 in the ACC) in the race. After a return that went long though, everything seemed to unravel for the freshman. Her precision deviated and before long, the Tar Heel had won five games in a row. 

This was a pattern across the board, with senior Karolina Berankova and graduate student Brianna Shvets both unable to come out on top of their three-set matches. Berankova, facing Tatum Evans, stayed in reach of the win until the end. After a close first set that Evans took 7-5, Berankova responded with a break to open the second set. When everything came down to the final games, the Prague native was unable to find the consistency that had taken her through the match thus far. Shvets faced a similar fate after winning the first set of her matchup against Thea Rabman with a dominant 6-2 performance but falling in a second set tiebreak 3-7. In the last and final set, Rabman broke Shvets’ serve twice and the rest was history.

“I told them the one thing we have to learn is, our emotional investment was great today, our physical investment was great, we just got to mentally be there every single point no matter who's on the other side of the net,”  Ashworth said. 

While North Carolina (15-3, 8-1) was a tough opponent to begin with, several factors were working against the Blue Devils this weekend. The first was the intense environment of Ambler Tennis Stadium, filled with its fair share of Tar Heel fans Saturday. The pressure of having to deliver at home seemed to affect the players, who were already playing in the hot and humid Durham weather. In her singles match against Elizabeth Scotty, junior Emma Jackson became visibly frustrated after three North Carolina fans in the audience continued to loudly cheer following every point. After talking to the referee, Jackson proceeded to lose five games in a row. 

“Whether it's here, whether it's there, obviously we've played them a ton, whether it's an NCAA tournament or indoors, you're gonna have a lot of emotion,” Ashworth said. “A lot of that emotion comes from the familiarity with the team and the players. That's part of it too. We can't let outside factors control what we do on the courts.”

Saturday was also the team’s ninth tournament without junior Ellie Coleman, a top-100 singles player who, in her two seasons at Duke, has had eight match-clinching wins.

The Blue Devils’ single win Friday came from graduate student Iuliia Bryzgalova, who just last week, achieved 100 career singles victories. Her dominant 6-2, 6-2 performance over North Carolina’s Anika Yarlagadda was her sixth straight overall win. Bryzgalova’s consistent forehand and baseline hitting has resulted in her being 7-1 in ACC play this season and has made her a valuable member of the team. 

“She's been playing well for us the last couple of weeks, and we need her to do that and keep playing well,”  Ashworth said. “And it's good to see her, towards the back end of her career, playing the best that she's played in her Duke career.”

Next up, the Blue Devils will face two more ACC teams at home. They will compete against Virginia Tech April 5 and Virginia April 7, where they look to bounce back from this tough loss. 

“We have to have that mental commitment every single day. Hopefully, we can do that. We've gotten better as a team,” Ashworth said. “Our tennis has improved, our emotional level is high, and if we can get that aspect in as well, I told them we can compete with anybody.”


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