DURHAM, N.C. – In a battle of top-20 teams, 15th-ranked Duke grabbed the early momentum in doubles and gutted out several three-set matches in singles to top No. 19 Illinois 5-2 Friday evening in the Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center.
The Blue Devils (4-2) concluded their season-opening homestand in convincing fashion, collecting their fourth consecutive victory and third-straight over a nationally-ranked opponent.
“I’m most proud of how we competed and fought,” said head coach Ramsey Smith. “About halfway through singles, I felt like the momentum really shifted and we fed off of each other and really just took it to Illinois … We’re going into some tough road matches here and this was a big one, especially to build off of that UNC win last weekend.”
The doubles point was decided by three tiebreakers, with the Illini taking an early advantage as fourth-ranked Tim Kopinski and Ross Guignon topped the Duke duo of sophomore Michael Redlicki and junior Jason Tahir, 6-5 (4), on court one.
Momentum swung to the Blue Devils’ favor when sophomore Daniel McCall and freshman TJ Pura knocked off the 31st-ranked tandem of Alex Jesse and Jared Hiltzik in the No. 3 matchup, 6-5 (6). McCall and Pura, who made his spring debut Friday evening, improved to 4-1 on the year with the win. Senior Fred Saba and sophomore Bruno Semenzato then secured the point, notching a 6-5 (5) upset of No. 27 Farris Gosea and Blake Bazarnik of Illinois on court two.
“We started off with really good doubles,” Smith said. “All three courts came out with a lot of energy and played aggressive. They were three really close doubles sets. That gave us a lot of momentum.”
The two teams split the six first sets in singles, with Saba and Semenzato each pulling first-set tiebreakers on courts two and four. After over an hour of play, 77th-ranked Josh Levine led the Blue Devils off the courts with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Bazarnik of Illinois in the No. 5 contest. The sophomore from Syosset, N.Y. moved to 5-1 on the spring and 4-1 from the No. 5 position with the three-set decision.
In a matchup of top-30 players on court one, 29th-ranked Redlicki cruised to a 6-0 first-set win against No. 4 Hiltzik. However, Hiltzik came back to take the second set, 6-2, and held off Redlicki in the third, forcing a third-set tiebreaker. The two players went back and forth in the breaker before Hiltzik prevailed, 6-5 (5), cutting Duke’s lead in the match to 2-1.
No. 95 Semenzato was impressive in his No. 4 contest against Brian Page of the Fighting Illini, taking the first set in a grueling tiebreaker, 6-5 (9). Semenzato claimed the second set, 6-3, to extend his singles win streak to four matches and improve his dual match ledger to 5-1.
Pura clinched the match from the No. 6 spot in the lineup, rebounding from a tough first set to defeat Illinois’ Guignon 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 and record his first collegiate singles win in dual match play in exciting fashion.
“I was feeling pretty good throughout the match,” Pura said. “It was about grinding it out and digging deep … It feels surreal. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it’s an amazing feeling.”
“TJ was something special out there,” Smith said. “He was really a shot of adrenaline. He plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, which is great in the dual match format and I think other guys feed off of him.”
On court three, 52nd-ranked Tahir also came back strong after dropping his first set against No. 46 Kopinski, improving to 2-0 at the No. 3 position with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Saba and No. 106 Gosea closed out the match on court two, with Gosea rallying for a 5-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4 win.
The Blue Devils will continue a tough stretch in their schedule, hitting the road to face No. 6 Tennessee Friday, Feb. 7 at 6 p.m. and No. 26 Michigan Sunday, Feb. 9 at 12 p.m.
#15 Duke 5, #19 Illinois 2 Jan 31, 2014 at Durham, N.C. (Sheffield Indoor Tennis Center)