'Changed the trajectory of the program': Seniors inspire No. 17 Duke men's tennis' defeat of No. 22 North Carolina

Faris Khan volleys the ball during his doubles match with Teddy Truwit.
Faris Khan volleys the ball during his doubles match with Teddy Truwit.

Victory came for Duke Saturday, but not without a resilient and memorable fight by its archrival North Carolina. After taking the doubles point, the 17th-ranked Blue Devils won four of the six singles matches, clinching the 5-2 victory after senior Faris Khan defeated Anuj Watane. 

“It was an amazing college tennis match,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “Great atmosphere, beautiful day, the place was absolutely packed, the energy from start to finish was off the charts and ultimately I’m incredibly proud of my team, especially the seniors.” 

There couldn’t have been a better way for the Blue Devils (16-7, 8-2 in the ACC) to start doubles play than what happened on court 1: Sophomore Pedro Rodenas and redshirt senior Garrett Johns immediately broke serve. On court 2, graduates Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang were broken when North Carolina (13-6, 7-3) took a 4-3 lead. With an authoritative lead on court 1 and an uncertain outcome on court 2, the doubles point would be decided on court 3.

“Just good energy and going for our shots, [Truwit and I] have really good chemistry around the team and we are doing well and the coach is doing well so it's good,” Khan said.

Khan and Teddy Truwit gained the upper hand by breaking serve on Karl Poling and Will Peters to take a pivotal 4-3 lead, yelling in exhilaration alongside the crowd. Zhang and Heller began to fight back on court 2, breaking serve to tie the game 4-4 as Rodenas and Johns gave Duke its first set of the afternoon in an impressive 6-2 win. Khan and Truwit took advantage of the energy the crowd emulated after the break point, demonstrating their concentration and determination to win the match 6-4 and seal the doubles point for the Blue Devils.

“I think it's just the energy, I would rather have it where the crowds are getting in my face and making noises between serves and trying to get in my head, I enjoy it,” Khan said.  “That actually motivates me more to play, I’ve always played my best matches, even in juniors, when people would heckle.”

“Doubles was phenomenal on all three courts, and we really grabbed the momentum because [North Carolina] is always really tough in doubles,” Smith said. “Then the second piece was just how strong we came out on singles and that’s something we didn’t do in our last match against Notre Dame and we really talked about coming out with some urgency.”

Come the singles matches, Johns dominated the first set on court 1, breaking serve twice to take a solid 4-0 lead against Benjamin Kittay, an aggressive server. Both Khan and Zhang jumped out to 5-0 leads in their respective matches after breaking serve three consecutive times. 

Johns eventually took his first set 6-1 alongside Rodenas who also won 6-1. The surprise came on court 3 where Zhang dropped seven straight points to lose the first set 7-5, and freshman Alexander Visser’s attempted comeback fell short, losing 6-3. With Khan winning the set 6-1 on court 6 and junior Connor Krug losing 6-2 on court 4, the match was up for grabs as the Blue Devils and Tar Heels had divided the first sets 3-3. 

The second set arrived, and out of the gates, Duke took the lead as Rodenas capped off his match without dropping a single game in the second set, giving the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead. Then came Johns, who also impressed by gaining a 3-0 lead and eventually winning the match with a 6-4 second set. 

“Garrett and Pedro are phenomenal tennis players, they care so much about the program, they play at their best in this dual match format, and they were really really tough again,” Smith said. “To play one and two is really hard and to win convincingly, these are the best players in the country.” 

The Tar Heels were not going to fall easily, however, as Krug fell and Visser was losing 5-1 on court 5. This meant that the fate of the match relied either on Zhang or Khan. Zhang, who has the most clinched matches on the team, was up 5-1 in the second set, as the match seemed to be heading to a decisive third set. However, with Khan taking a 5-2 lead in the second set, it was building up to be his moment.

“I enjoy the moments of pressure, I enjoy having it come down to me,” Khan said. “I was thinking, ‘I'm ready, I’m going to be the one to step up and win and I’m glad that I was able to be in that position.’”

With a 40-30 lead and the potential to clinch, Khan served and hit the ball swiftly and Watane was unsuccessful in returning, giving the Blue Devils the victory.

“Faris was just ready, it was his time, he’s put in some really good weeks of practice and he’s been the best possible teammate when he hasn’t played singles,” Smith said.

Prior to the start of the match, Khan, Johns, Zhang, Heller and Andrew Dale were commemorated for their contributions throughout their careers.

“They’ve changed the trajectory of the program,” Smith said. “When they came in, we were in a tough spot and we were below our standard … I'm just so grateful that they’ve helped get us back to what I feel like we should be, in that top 15 and top 10. They all share that love for Duke, that love for Duke tennis, and that love to compete, so I’ll definitely miss them.”


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