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No. 8 Duke men’s tennis struggles in weekend series, falls to Illinois before heartbreaker at Northwestern

No. 8 Duke men’s tennis struggles in weekend series, falls to Illinois before heartbreaker at Northwestern

An impressive Duke squad headed into the weekend undefeated, but they had yet to be tested on the road. After two tough matches, they took the long trip home, no longer as an undefeated team.

No. 8 Duke, 5-0 heading into the weekend, traveled to the Midwest for a busy weekend of two away matches, ultimately falling to two unranked opponents in Illinois and Northwestern to end its hot start to the season. The weekend started in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., at the Atkins Tennis Center Friday evening, where the Fighting Illini stunned the Blue Devils with a decisive 5-2 victory. After a full day of rest and a bus ride to nearby Evanston, Ill., the Blue Devils and Wildcats locked into a heated battle at Combe Tennis Center, with Northwestern pulling out the victory in a tiebreaker in the final match.

In both matches, the Blue Devils (5-2) stumbled at the starting line, losing the doubles point to begin play. On Friday, Duke was able to snag one set, with junior Connor Krug and senior Faris Khan winning 6-4 at Illinois (3-2), and the pair of graduate students Michael Heller and Andrew Zhang winning 6-3 at Northwestern (2-5) Sunday. It wasn’t enough, though, and in both matches the Blue Devils found themselves starting singles play one point behind.

Singles play in Urbana-Champaign began with Duke and Illinois splitting the first sets among each of the courts. With Duke already having lost the doubles point, simply splitting singles matches would not be good enough to secure the win. Redshirt senior Garrett Johns and true senior Andrew Dale fell in straight sets nearly simultaneously, to raucous applause from the Illinois fans in attendance. The Fighting Illini needed only one more team point to secure the win against Duke. The Blue Devils found victory as junior twins Connor and Jake Krug pulled out straight-set wins of their own. 

With Illinois still only one point from victory, Michigan native Andrew Zhang — playing on court 3 — battled into the third set to keep his match and Duke’s undefeated record alive. Late in the third set, Illinois was able to break Zhang’s service game and finished the match as a Duke passing shot drifted wide, sealing up the win for the Fighting Illini. Meanwhile, Spanish sophomore Pedro Rodenas finished play on court 2, also falling in the third set and ticking one more point onto Illinois’ total to deliver a final score of 5-2.

The match at Northwestern later in the weekend seemed to be a case of deja vu, with two courts quickly falling in straight sets to the Wildcats to give them a 3-0 match lead after winning the doubles point. Duke needed to win all four remaining matches if it hoped to scratch a victory for the weekend. 

All four matches stretched into the third set, with Jake Krug, Johns and freshman Alexander Visser claiming victory to keep Duke’s hopes alive. The fate of the team now rested with Connor Krug as he and Northwestern’s Saiprakash Goli stayed neck-and-neck deep into the third set, and eventually sent the deciding duel into a tiebreaker. The two men stayed equally matched, going to 3-3, before Goli rattled off three points in a row to set up triple match point for the Wildcats. A huge first serve and textbook volley decided the match as Goli collapsed onto the court in celebration after a grueling match with his teammates around him.

The Blue Devils will now make the long journey home and attempt to regain their footing as they take on Yale Friday at Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center.