Duke began its NCAA tournament run with a dominant 4-1 defeat of Memphis before falling to No. 6-seed Tennessee in the second round. Ahead of Saturday’s loss, the Blue Devils performed well from the get-go Friday against the Tigers, winning the doubles point with a 6-4 victory from junior Andrew Zhang and graduate student Sean Sculley followed by a 6-3 win from the junior duo of Garrett Johns and Michael Heller.
“I thought the doubles really set the tone, we got off to great starts in doubles…,” head coach Ramsey Smith said after Duke’s win Friday. “We did win the doubles point and after that, I just felt like we were extremely focused. and we competed really, really well from the beginning. “
Going into the singles, the Blue Devils seemed eager to rebound after their second-round exit from the ACC tournament at the hands of Clemson. Duke won the doubles point in that match as well, but Clemson fought back and won four singles matches to send the Blue Devils packing. As a result, the Blue Devils must have known Friday that they could not take their foot off the gas as the match shifted to the singles.
Fortunately for Duke, the team was far more successful in singles against these Tigers, as the team dropped only one singles match to secure the victory. Andrew Dale, Johns and Zhang all won in straight sets to cap off a truly dominant morning of tennis for the Blue Devils.
“I think that loss in the ACC tournament stung after winning the doubles point and the guys made up their minds that they wouldn’t take anything for granted, and I just thought they competed extremely well from one to six,” said Smith.
Duke’s Friday performance is even more impressive when you consider the strength of its opponent — Memphis entered the match with a strong 16-7 record and boasted an impressive lineup. Memphis freshman Pablo Malea, for instance, went undefeated the entire season in singles and the doubles duo of David Stevenson and Jeremy Taylor earned a spot in the NCAA Doubles Championship starting in late May.
“It was a tough match, it wasn’t routine at all,” said Smith. “They are a much better indoor team, and our match got moved indoors because of the weather. So they are a big team, big players, big serving, and a lot of big forehands. We couldn’t get passive and we couldn’t get careful and we had to really take it to them and I thought we did a tremendous job of that. ”
Following the 4-1 win against Memphis, the Blue Devils faced a much stiffer test Saturday against Tennessee. The Volunteers entered the match with a stellar 23-7 record and advanced all the way to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 2021. Before the contest, Smith acknowledged the challenge at hand but remained confident in his squad’s ability to pull off the upset.
“They are definitely one of the best teams in the country. They are a big team, they are a deep team, they play great doubles, they are super tough but we have the ability to beat them, “said Smith.
The match began with three nail-biters in doubles, as Johns and Heller pulled out a 6-4 win to put the Blue Devils one match away from winning the doubles point. Both of the other two contests came down to decisive tiebreakers, and sophomores Niroop Vallabhaneni and Faris Khan were able to win their tiebreaker 8-6 to give Duke a 1-0 advantage heading into the singles. The Blue Devils just needed to win half of their singles matches to upset the Volunteers and punch their ticket to the super regional round.
But the Volunteers were dominant in the singles, as the Blue Devils did not win a single match. Tennessee senior Emile Hudd made quick work of Duke’s Connor Krug, dispatching the freshman 6-1, 6-1. Dale, Johns and Khan were also defeated in straight sets as Duke’s season ended in a 4-1 defeat.
Despite its disappointing finish to Saturday’s match, Duke can hold its head high. The team ended the regular season with an impressive 16-7 record, including an 8-4 conference record that made it the No. 5 seeds in the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils also achieved more tournament success than last year, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after being bounced in the first round by South Florida in 2021.
The Blue Devils have one more event to look forward to — the NCAA Singles Championship. Johns received an at-large selection to the event and will look to make a run in the season’s final chapter, beginning May 23.
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