DURHAM, N.C. – The No. 4 Duke women’s tennis dominated the singles play to beat No. 1 North Carolina 5-2 on Friday night in Ambler Tennis Stadium and clinch a share of the ACC regular season title.
“That’s the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve beat UNC,” said junior Ellyse Hamlin. “Home court advantage definitely helped. A lot of my friends were there. There was a lot of support, you could feel it in the atmosphere. Overall, it's a great feeling. Especially because our team has been working so hard and this is what you work for.”
Duke improves to 20-2 on the season and 12-1 in the ACC while North Carolina drops to 22-3 and 11-2 in conference. The Blue Devils clinch at least a share of the conference regular season championship for the second straight year and can win the title outright with a win in their last regular season game.
In front of a raucous crowd in Ambler Tennis Stadium, the doubles point came down to the wire. Samantha Harris and Kelly Chen started Duke off on the right foot by beating Sara Daavettila and Alle Sanford 6-3. Soon after, the Tar Heels evened it when Marika Akkerman and Makena Jones topped Meible Chi and Hannah Zhao 6-4. The doubles point came down to court one where Kaitlyn McCarthy and Hamlin battled Alexa Graham and Jessie Aney. The two tandems battled back and forth, as neither could extend its lead by more than a single game. Finally, the Tar Heel duo came out on top in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (7-5).
Duke turned the momentum of the match around very early on in the singles matches. Duke won the first two games on four courts and Chi, Chen and Hamlin all opened up 5-0 advantages. The trio all claimed their respective first sets, followed by McCarthy winning hers as well. North Carolina fought back by taking the first set on the bookend courts one and six.
“The beginning of the singles was all about character,” said head coach Jamie Ashworth. “Our girls didn’t feel like they got beat in the doubles point, we lost in the doubles point and there’s a difference. I think the doubles point was on our racquets. We were up and just didn’t execute like we wanted to execute. We talked about, that it’s right there for us, but we have to go out there and take it. We have to hit the ball and we have to go after our shots and if we miss we miss.”
Hamlin continued her strong play into the second set, taking a 3-1 early on against Chloe Ouellet-Pizer. Ouellet-Pizer closed the gap to 3-2 briefly, but Hamlin did not drop another game and closed out a 6-1, 6-2 win to tie the team score at 1-1.
“The biggest thing for me is to just move on and keep looking forward to the bigger picture,” Hamlin said. “After doubles, I put it behind me. It even motivated me too, just knowing that I needed to do my job on my court. I took a lot of pride in that. Win or lose the doubles point, keeping moving forward.”
Soon after, Chen gave Duke its first lead of the day. After not dropping a game in the first set against Jessie Aney, the rookie from Cerritos, Calif., had a tighter second set. Chen won a pivotal game with the set tied at 3-3 and did not look back, winning 6-0, 6-3.
Chi’s second set was tight most of the way through, as she battled Alle Sanford. The pair could not steal an important break point through the first eight games. After defending her serve for the fifth time to take a 5-4 lead, Chi finally took the crucial break to win the match 6-1, 6-4.
Duke was a point away from victory after Chi’s victory, but had to wait some time as the other three matches all needed the maximum three sets. McCarthy won the first set against Alexa Graham, but Graham bounced back to force the third. It was the opposite story for Zhao as she trailed Jones early, but dominated the second set to send the match to a third set.
“One of the biggest comebacks was Hannah, who was down quick in the first set,” Ashworth said. “She was able to make that first set last long and gain a little bit of confidence. Even though she lost the first set, there was a point where she had won 10 out of 11 games. That was important for her and obviously important for our team.”
Once they reached the third set, McCarthy and Zhao both established early leads. McCarthy lost the first game, but won five straight to put her on the verge of victory. Zhao raced out to a 5-0 lead of her own. Neither could close immediately though. McCarthy had a match point, but Graham survived to extend the match. Akkerman also kept her match going, winning two games with her back against the wall. Zhao stopped the comeback there, winning the next game to clinch the match with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. Minutes later, McCarthy followed Zhao with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win.
“I thought Kaitlyn did a good job of controlling the court with her forehand and returning really well,” Ashworth added. “When she can do those things, and especially for her, I was hard on her during the doubles because I’ve told her, her forehand shot is the best shot out here, but you have to use it. I think that it says a lot about her that she was able to bounce back after the doubles and beat a really good player.”
Duke’s only singles loss came in a three-set thriller on court one. Harris and Jones were the final match playing, and even with the team score decided, the pair continued to fight. Harris trailed 3-1, 5-4 and 6-5 in that third set, but each time the Melbourne, Australia product fought back to tie the match. After more than four hours, Jones finally won in the tiebreaker, clinching a 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7-5) win.
Duke will have one more home match, hosting Virginia Tech on Sunday at noon. Prior to the match, seniors Harris and Rebecca Smaller will be honored. With a win, Duke will clinch the outright regular season conference championship as well as the top seed in next week’s ACC Tournament.
“As a team, this is a big thing for us,” said Hamlin. “We’ve been working really hard and it sets up to do well in the ACC Tournament, which is a big goal for us this year. The little things are coming together for us and it’s really good to see.”
1. No. 11 Makenna Jones (UNC) def. No. 4 Samantha Harris (Duke) 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (7-5)
2. No. 81 Meible Chi (Duke) def. No. 24 Alle Sanford (UNC) 6-1, 6-4
3. No. 119 Kaitlyn McCarthy (Duke) def. No. 83 Alexa Graham (UNC) 6-4, 2-6, 6-4
4. No. 29 Kelly Chen (Duke) def. No. 82 Jessie Aney (UNC) 6-0, 6-3
5. No. 124 Ellyse Hamlin (Duke) def. No. 117 Chloe Oullet-Pizer (UNC) 6-1, 6-2
6. Hannah Zhao (Duke) def. Marika Akkerman (UNC) 4-6, 6-2, 6-2
1. No. 1 Alexa Graham/Jessie Aney (UNC) def. No. 9 Kaitlyn McCarthy/Ellyse Hamlin (Duke) 7-6 (7-5)
2. No. 6 Samantha Harris/Kelly Chen (Duke) def. No. 23 Sara Daavettila/Alle Sanford (UNC) 6-3
3. Makenna Jones/Marika Akkerman (UNC) def. Hannah Zhao/Meible Chi (Duke) 6-4
North Carolina 22-3, 11-2 ACC; National ranking No. 1
Duke 20-2, 12-1 ACC; National ranking No. 4
Order of finish: Doubles (2,3,1); Singles (5,4,2,6,3,1)