DURHAM, N.C. – While his demeanor and leadership style may tend toward the quieter side, junior Jason Tahir’s on-court play this spring has forced opponents to take notice.
After contributing primarily from the No. 6 position in the Blue Devils’ singles lineup the past two seasons, Tahir has moved up to the top spot this year. Taking on the opponents’ top players each week, he has risen to the occasion, helping the Blue Devils compile a 10-1 record in ACC contests and earn the program’s 23rd consecutive appearance in the NCAA Team Championship.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Tahir was dependable in the No. 6 slot, going 30-4 there during his freshman and sophomore seasons. This spring, he was called upon to move up in the lineup, beginning the dual match season on court one. He was also entrusted with more leadership responsibilities as the team’s co-captain along with senior Fred Saba.
Starting off the spring with tough losses to a pair of nationally-ranked opponents, Tahir moved back down to the No. 2 and 3 spots where he was able to gain some more confidence. Between Jan. 19 and March 13, he won nine consecutive matches before moving back up to the No. 1 position in late March. His first match back on court one saw Tahir down Notre Dame’s Greg Andrews, then the 29th-ranked player in the country, for a 6-2, 6-3 victory. Duke would rally for a 4-3 win over the Irish, kicking off a nine-match win streak for the squad.
Tahir also outlasted North Carolina’s 10th-ranked Brayden Schnur in a three-set battle Apr. 20, helping to ensure a thrilling 5-2 team victory in the regular season finale. He reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 30 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll the following week.
“Those guys are both really, really good players,” Tahir says of Andrews and Schnur. “Playing those type of guys week in and week out at No. 1, all the matches are really close. Basically I know it’s going to come down to a couple of little things but I’m right there with almost everyone in the country.”
Duke head coach Ramsey Smith also sees the maturation in the junior right-hander, and is fully confident in putting him at the No. 1 singles position.
“Jason’s match against Greg Andrews was a big turning point,” Smith notes. “He fully focused on just competing every point and finding a way to win. He was relentless and beat a player, a senior, that doesn’t lose very often. That really helped the team, knowing that we could win at one against the very best players.”
“He’s come a long way since his freshman year. He’s made big strides physically – he’s in incredible shape, he’s moving so much better than when he first came in.”
Tahir’s development has translated to doubles as well, as he has paired with sophomore Josh Levine during the second half of the spring to post a 7-2 mark at the No. 2 spot, including five consecutive wins in conference play. Another aspect of Tahir’s game that has benefitted from his three years of collegiate play is his mental toughness and competitiveness.
“Mentally, I think he’s gotten a lot tougher for sure and a lot more focused,” Smith says of Tahir. “He’s really driven to succeed personally and for his team to succeed. He’s been one of our most consistently hard workers the last three years.”
Tahir credits much of his success this season to watching and learning from older players in the program over the past two seasons. He cites Duke’s 2012 senior class, including Luke Marchese, as an influential group, as well as Henrique Cunha, who graduated as the Blue Devils’ all-time wins leader in singles and doubles last year. Their guidance, he says, helped him learn how to become more comfortable with his role on the team.
“Playing at the top of the lineup has helped me become more of a leader,” he says. “I have a lot more things to think about. Before, I was generally I was just thinking about how I could best help the team personally. Now I think of it on a much wider sphere. I’m trying to be more vocal. If I see something I think the team can improve on, I’ve felt more comfortable voicing my opinion this year.”
A key component to Duke’s 19-6 season, which has included qualification to the 2014 ITA National Team Indoor Championship, a second-place finish in the ACC regular season standings and the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Team Championship, Tahir has found his place among a formidable lineup. He joined teammates Saba and juniors Raphael Hemmeler and Bruno Semenzato in receiving All-ACC recognition, and takes pride in how the Blue Devil squad plays together as a whole.
“We’re all competing really, really well,” he says. “Even if guys aren’t playing their best tennis, we just believe we’re going to get the job done and we compete really well for each other. I’m really proud to be on this team.”
Duke opens NCAA Tournament play Saturday, May 10 at 12 p.m. against Winthrop at Ambler Tennis Stadium. For live video and scoring links and other information, visit the tournament homepage on GoDuke.com.