ATHENS, Ga. — They were a small bunch, yet hardy, happy as hell and way out of place. These were the Duke Blue Devils, jumping for joy Saturday among themselves amid a large, suddenly silent sea of red and black after beating Georgia 4-2 at Georgia.
They had punched a ticket to Monday’s national semifinal against defending national champion Florida, and seeing their celebration was a bit like watching a band of authors celebrate after scripting circles around doubters.
Even upon taking time to collect themselves after Rachel Kahan’s back-from-the-brink match-clinching win at No. 4 singles, it was impossible to pick one point where Duke’s dream of beating the Dogs in their own house began to take shape.
So before diving into details, like the facts that the Blue Devils lost the doubles point, had their No. 1 player’s 16-match winning streak stopped and STILL advanced, we’ll abandon chronology and open with the day the brackets came and and move from there to a chance Saturday morning meeting in a local hotel.
First, know this: crowds at the Dan McGill Tennis Complex are especially large when the Bulldogs are on display, and not necessarily always tennis-like in their comportment. Some years, you might think a football game will break out.
“We don’t want to look ahead in the draw, but as soon as it came out and we saw that first we would have to play Virginia for the third time and then Georgia here … the first thing we had to portray to our team that it’s going to be a fun and great atmosphere to play in,” Duke coach Jamie Ashworth said. “It’s a legendary place to play matches.
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“We kind of took that spin on it rather than, ‘Oh, that sucks; we have to play Georgia at Georgia,’ but rather, ‘Let’s embrace the situation.’ I talked with USC men’s coach Peter Smith [owner of three consecutive national titles], and he told me it’s like a rite of passage to win an NCAA tournament match against Georgia here. I kept thinking about that.”
And then the Blue Devils who went down to Georgia … did it.
The teams split doubles matches on courts 1 and 2 before Georgia’s Lilly Kimbell and Maho Kowase won their 22nd consecutive match together 8-6 against Duke’s Monica Gorny and Hanna Mar to sew up the doubles point for the Bulldogs.
Soon, at No. 1 singles, Duke freshman Beatrice Capra began to feel her age even though she’d won 16 matches in a row. Take her opponent, 2010 NCAA singles champion Chelsey Gullickson, add woofing and hollering from the stands, and you had this from Capra: “I felt overwhelmed with the crowd and stuff. There was a lot going on … I was so surprised that so many people came out to watch.”
Gullickson won 6-3, 6-2 to give Georgia a 2-1 lead because Duke’s Ester Goldfeld — also a freshman — had just beaten the Dogs’ Nadja Gilchrist 6-2, 7-5 at No. 2 singles after Gilchrist led 5-4.
Third-seeded Duke (29-2) won first sets on Nos. 2, 3, 4 and six, but No. 6 Georgia (24-5) evened matches with second-set wins on Nos. 3, 4 and 6.
The crowd was going fairly nuts, and fans from the adjacent McWhorter Courts began to work their way into Henry Feild Stadium because No. 2 Florida (25-1) had made quick work of No. 10 Miami (21-5) in singles on the way to 4-0 win.
Attendance worked its way up to 1,511, and folks worked themselves into a lather.
“It was just awesome to have all those fans there supporting us,” Georgia coach Jeff Wallace said.
Duke’s Monica Turewicz pulled the Blue Devils even at 2-2 with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win over Kimbell at No. 6 singles.
That left three battles.
Duke’s Hanna Mar, ranked No. 59, edged Georgia’s Maho Kowase, ranked No. 58, by a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 at No. 3 singles to push Duke ahead.
Kahan said she was trying to ignore the scoreboard, “which is difficult because it’s right there. Quickly, she knew what was up, “because Hanna was cheering for me,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have. Those thoughts [about clinching] go through your head.”
Moments earlier, Kahan had plenty to think about. She trailed 5-3 in the third and final set against Georgia’s Lauren Herring, and soon after Herring served on match point, the Bulldog freshman rushed the net.
Kahan beat her with a passing shot to stay alive, break serve, win the game and eventually land in a tiebreaker. She won that, 7-5, when Herring drove a ball into the net from deep.
“I played hesitantly, and she stepped up,” Herring said. “I think I probably backed off a little bit.”
The match over, the Dukies jumped for joy as the crowd hushed.
There was a strange question later when someone asked Ashworth if there were similarities between this match and Duke’s win against Georgia on the way to the 2009 national title.
That, though, was at Texas A&M and in the semifinals.
There was this: Duke’s win Saturday was its 18th in a row, tying the second-longest streak in school history. That mark was set on the way to that national title. The school record is a 22-match streak in 2001.
Florida beat Duke 5-0 earlier this season in Gainesville in a rain-shortened match.
Don’t read too much into that. UCLA lost 4-2 at Stanford earlier this season, but beat the Cardinal 4-2 Saturday in another quarterfinal — on a neutral court.
Sometimes, it’s about timing and meeting the moment. Monday’s rematch with the Gators will be, in a change, on a court again neutral for the Blue Devils.
“We just kept fighting, and fighting and fighting,” Ashworth said. “When we lost that match, all the girls said that hopefully we would have the chance to play them again.”