‘Everyone loves each other’: Veteran leadership and elite doubles chemistry is fueling Duke men’s tennis’ historic season

The Duke men's tennis community after defeating Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Duke men's tennis community after defeating Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Graduate student Andrew Zhang ripped a forehand to defeat Alabama and send his team to the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. Immediately after the match, Duke men’s tennis gathered for a team photo.

But everyone was included — coaches, families, parents and friends — representing the Blue Devil tennis community. It was a special moment to recognize this season, but also to commemorate the final home match for many staples of this team. 

“It's pretty emotional since it's my last home match playing for Duke,” Zhang said. “These last five years have meant so much to me, I've built so many great relationships and developed so much as a tennis player.”

This is a veteran team that has played together for four and even five years. Zhang, Garrett Johns and Michael Heller all decided to come back for a fifth season, even after the team reached the Round of 16 a year ago. 

“We all decided that we wanted to come back, me, Garrett and Michael,” Zhang said. “The Sweet 16 is great, but like we want more, we're hungry for more.”

Johns’ case is special. As one of the better players to ever play at Duke, he has anchored the No. 1 spot in singles for four years. Just a week before the start of the NCAA tournament, Johns won a 15K pro tournament in Vero Beach, Fla. Despite his professional success, he came back to Duke anyway. 

“I definitely want to play pro tennis after, but I love this group and these guys so much,” Johns said. “So I took some time off in the fall, but came back for the spring to give it one more go. I thought it was a great choice to come back and see what we can do.”

His fellow teammates share this respect — shouting “I love you Garrett” in the background of our interview. 

“He said ‘Hey, I want to stay if you can find a spot for me,’” head coach Ramsey Smith said of Johns.

“Somehow, someway, I found a spot for him,” Smith joked. “It's crazy how much he’s progressed and matured and developed… he’s the most low maintenance person on our team.”

Because of their veteran presence and experience, this group fights for each other and is constantly in sync on the court. 

That has manifested itself in doubles play, as the Blue Devils have three tandems where a love of playing together makes them difficult to defeat. As a result, Duke has only lost the doubles point in one out of its past 11 matches.

“I mean, chemistry is a massive piece,” Smith said. “Not only players whose games complement each other well, but just their energy. We have that with all three of those teams.”

Exhibit A: Johns and sophomore Pedro Rodenas are the No. 1 doubles team in the country. Their key to success? Having fun.

“We try not to take it too seriously,” Johns said. “It's kind of just having fun out there. And that's when we play our best.” 

“Just the fun we have and how even in high moments of pressure, we're able to just get the other guy to laugh,” Rodenas said.

If it works, it works, and the duo has quickly risen up the rankings. They have won twelve straight matches, almost a sure-fire victory every time they step on the court. 

Rodenas is a breakout star waiting to happen, with a shotmaking ability that rivals those at the top of the game. His flashiness juxtaposed with Johns’ steadiness is a recipe for disaster for the opposition. 

“[Rodenas] is one of the most talented guys I've ever played with,” Johns said. “So it's always cool to see what kind of shots he's gonna hit.” 

“I was super excited,” Rodenas said of Johns returning for another season. “He’s my best friend out here, has the same goals I have, so it's just super fun.”

At the second doubles court, Zhang and Heller complement each other perfectly on the court. With Zhang’s smooth baseline strokes and Heller’s impressive volleying ability, they are a tough out for even the top teams in the nation. 

But what makes them so special is their friendship off the court. Because they came to Duke at the same time and have played together for five years, they have developed an unbreakable bond that transcends tennis and is authentic in every sense.

“Me and Heller have created a really close relationship over the last five years,” Zhang said. “Besides just coming in together and playing doubles for five years, you spend a lot of time together off the court. When we’re away, we’re roommates in hotels.”

The pattern is evident: Elite pairings on the court, best friends off the court. 

“[Heller’s] been one of my best friends ever,” Zhang said. “So it's been really special that we've been able to grow our bond on and off the court, and it's just always a pleasure sharing the court with him.”

These two teams are excellent. But when watching Duke play doubles recently, one can’t ignore the energy coming from court 3, where senior Faris Khan and sophomore Teddy Truwit can be found hyping each other up after every big point. 

Smith described them as a “shot out of a cannon” in their 6-1 win against the Crimson Tide, and neither have shown signs of nerves in the tournament thus far. Since the two have been inserted into the starting lineup this spring, Duke has won the doubles point in all but one match.

“[Khan and Truwit], I think, have the best energy of all our teams, and they have so much fun playing together,” Smith said. 

Despite this recent success, the season hasn’t always been smooth. Duke went through a stretch when it recorded a 5-6 record, and despite a brutal schedule, multiple players admitted they weren’t their best selves. 

“​​A couple of other guys struggled during mid season, me included,” Rodenas said. “But then we all got together as a group and decided just to push through the last couple of matches for the fifth years and just fight for each other.”

Last season, the Blue Devils made the Round of 16 for the first time since 2015 before falling to eventual national champion Virginia. As the Blue Devils set their sights on further aspirations, the talent on the court is only outmatched by the genuine bonds of brotherhood surrounding this team. 

Regardless of the result, the group has formed a community for life. For Smith, the key to this team’s magic goes beyond just talent: It’s the unique family culture they've created, exemplified by that team picture. Zhang’s, Heller’s and Johns’ parents sit together at the bottom of the photo. 

“Everyone loves each other,” Smith said. “Everyone's on the same page, and it's just a really fun group.”

Duke takes on TCU at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Super Regionals. 

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Sports Editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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