DURHAM, N.C. -- In a near repeat of this season’s earlier meeting between the Tobacco Road rivals, 14th-ranked Duke rallied from a dropped doubles point to take down No. 8 North Carolina 5-2 Sunday.
The Blue Devils (18-5, 10-1 ACC) posted wins on five of the six court in singles to overcome a 2-0 deficit, concluding the regular season on an eight-match win streak. In addition, the squad set a program record with the 10 ACC victories this spring and senior Fred Saba became the all-time ACC singles wins leader at Duke in his final regular season contest at Ambler Tennis Stadium.
“This was really fun,” head coach Ramsey Smith said. “It’s Duke-UNC. We’ve had so many great matches in the past. They’re an amazing team – they’re really good and they’re playing really good tennis. We knew we still had a shot after losing the doubles point, so the big thing was refocusing and making sure everyone believed … I couldn’t be prouder of the team. You could just see us grab the momentum, and it was contagious, spreading from court to court.”
Momentum swung back and forth several times in doubles, with the Tar Heels taking the point after more than an hour of play. Court No. 2 was the first to finish, where North Carolina’s Oystein Steiro and Nelson Vick defeated junior Jason Tahir and sophomore Josh Levine of Duke 8-4. The loss snapped a six-match win streak for Tahir and Levine, who dropped to 6-1 on the spring.
The duo of redshirt junior Cale Hammond and sophomore Bruno Semenzato fell behind early against Jack Murrary and Ronnie Schneider in the No. 3 contest, but broke back to even the score at 2-2. Hammond and Semenzato had another opportunity late in the set, pulling within one game at 5-6 and 6-7. However the Tar Heels held off five break points to take the match and secure a 1-0 advantage for North Carolina heading into singles.
In a bright spot for the Blue Devils, the 69th-ranked team of Saba and junior Raphael Hemmeler knocked off No. 32 Brayden Schnur and Brett Clark in a tiebreak on court No. 1, 7-3. The win was the Duke tandem’s third this season over a ranked opponent and moved their record to 13-5 overall and 7-3 in conference play.
Despite a win for North Carolina at No. 3 singles, where Hemmeler suffered a 6-1, 6-4 setback to 63rd-ranked Clark, the Blue Devils were quickly able to tie up the match score. Saba, the 46th-ranked player in the ITA national singles poll, turned in a solid performance in his final regular season contest at Ambler. He upended No. 30 Schneider in the No. 2 contest 7-5, 6-3 to earn Duke’s first point. With the victory, Saba moved into first on the program’s all-time list for career ACC singles wins with 35 for his career and improved to 20-6 on the season.
“It’s special being Senior Day, but I just had to key in and focus on what helps me play well,” Saba said. “This says a lot about the team and how resilient we are. Everyone played their role and competed as well as they could. That’s a top-10 team that we took five singles matches from, so that to me was just incredible. It can’t get any better than this.”
Semenzato, the 86th-ranked player in the nation, followed Saba off the courts just minutes later with a 6-4, 6-3 decision against Steiro at the No. 4 spot. He earned a key break at 3-2 in the first set and won the final three games of the second set to collect his 29th singles victory of the year and ninth in ACC action. Freshman TJ Pura then gave Duke a 3-2 advantage in the contest, winning in straight sets over Vick on court six. The rookie posted 6-3, 6-3 scores to extend his dual match singles win streak to 13 contests.
The match came down to a pair of three-set decisions on courts one and five. Tahir, the 36th-ranked player in the ITA poll, took the first set from No. 10 Schnur on one, but the Tar Heel freshman rebounded to edge Tahir in the second set. Meanwhile on court five, Levine responded from a 7-5 first-set loss to Murray to roll in the second set 6-0.
Both Blue Devil players found themselves down a break in their respective third sets, but Levine fought off match point in two different games and Tahir broke serve twice at 2-1 and 4-3. Tahir fended off Schnur in the final game to clinch the victory for Duke. Levine added a 7-4 third-set tiebreak win against Murray to give the Blue Devils five singles points.
“I got a little lucky with a shot and broke, and from there I felt like I was just going to be the toughest guy on the court,” Tahir said. “I just had to get it done for the team. Fred’s won so many matches for us and he’s been one of our best points since I’ve been here. He won really quickly today and has just helped us out a ton.”
The Blue Devils defeated their conference rival for the second time on the season, as the squad also lost doubles but came back to notch four wins in singles for a 4-2 victory against the Tar Heels in the ITA Kick-Off championship match Jan. 26 in Durham.
With Sunday’s win, Duke secures a second-place finish in the regular season ACC standings.