May 28, 2010

Andy Johnston, Special to

ATHENS, Ga. - Henrique Cunha isn't afraid to admit it. He's much more interested in Brazil's World Cup soccer team than he was in Duke's national championship basketball team.

"I went to one game," he said. "Duke and Wake Forest. That was the only one."

That's OK. It's understandable that the native Brazilian would be more focused on his country's chances on the world's biggest soccer stage than his school's latest NCAA basketball title.

Besides, Cunha is just a freshman.

"We've been watching the (NBA) playoffs together in the hotel room," doubles partner Reid Carleton said. "Maybe that will help him understand it better and we can get him to more games."

Duke fans likely would be fine if Cunha just continues to make it to tennis matches. He quickly became one of the nation's top players this year, rising to the No. 1 ranking and entering the NCAA Division I Men's Tennis Championships as the top seed in singles and doubles.

"It's amazing," Cunha said. "I'm kind of surprised. I came here knowing I could do well, but there are a lot of good players. I'm really proud of myself to win a lot of matches, playing at the No. 1 spot (in Duke's lineup). And I was able to improve my ranking."

Cunha advanced to the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles Friday, defeating Virginia's Sanam Singh 6-3, 7-6 (6) and then returning to the court with Carleton to eliminate UCLA's Amit Inbar and Nick Meister 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year will face Southern California's Robert Farah at noon Saturday. The doubles team will play Virginia's Michael Shabaz and Drew Courtney at 4 p.m. Shabaz teamed with Dominic Inglot to win the 2009 national title.

"I think the ranking doesn't matter here," Cunha said. "It's the quarterfinals, and there are eight great players, so anyone can win."

It already has been a successful season for Cunha, who set Duke's single-season record for singles victories with his 38th of the year against Singh. He has lost only five matches and is on a 23-match winning streak. He is 26-3 against ranked opponents.

"That singles match was pretty hard," Cunha said. "In the first set, I took my chances. I broke his serve. In the second set, it was tied. He was playing very well. I was playing well too. I broke back. In the tiebreaker, one point made the difference."

Carleton isn't shocked at Cunha's impact. Cunha was ranked as high as No. 6 in the International Tennis Federation world junior rankings, and he finished the 2008 season No. 18 in the world. He has a wealth of international experience.

"Tennis is a little bit different sport," Carleton said. "He's played the pro tour a little bit. He's won some small pro tournaments. He's a very mature player, so it doesn't surprise me."

They teamed up after Cunha arrived on campus and quickly became a formidable duo. Cunha is left-handed and Carleton is a righty, giving them remarkable court coverage.

Cunha and Carleton struggled in the second set against UCLA on Friday and then outlasted the Bruins in the third, winning the final two games and advancing on Cunha's winner. It was their eighth consecutive victory as they improved to 41-5 overall and 15-5 against ranked opponents.

Carleton said playing with Cunha had "been awesome. I can always count on him to hold me up. If I'm not playing too great, I always know he's going to serve well and return well. I know we have a good chance to win every single match, no matter how I'm feeling."