DURHAM, N.C. – Senior Henrique Cunha of the Duke men’s tennis team has eclipsed a number of records in his four seasons at Duke, but the native Brazilian would be willing to trade it all in for the opportunity to compete for a national championship with his teammates.
Cunha became Duke’s all-time leader in singles wins last fall, passing former Blue Devil Ludovic Walter when he defeated Adrien Berkowicz at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships. In that match, Cunha showed his relentless style of play by battling back after dropping the first set. He went on to win in three sets, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“It’s an honor for me to be among that group of players,” said Cunha, the preseason No. 1 ITA singles player in the nation, on achieving the Duke record. “It’s a consequence of the hard work we put in on the court and just winning as much as I can. It’s just an honor to be in the Top 10, and to be No. 1 is just amazing. I wasn’t expecting to beat the record during the fall. I just wanted to help the team first.”
In addition to breaking the all-time singles record at the event in Flushing, N.Y., Cunha and doubles partner Raphael Hemmeler went on to win the doubles title, becoming the second Blue Devil pair to win the National Indoor doubles crown. The previous title at the National Indoors came from Walter and Jason Zimmerman in 2003. Just one month prior, Cunha became the first player to win the regional championships four consecutive seasons.
Cunha began playing tennis at the age of five, when his mom and dad took their young son to the tennis courts to receive lessons. He immediately fell in love with the game and never stopped playing. The left-handed senior credits his parents for helping in his decision to attend Duke instead of going straight to the pro tour, as many in his native Brazil pressured him to do. After narrowing his college choices to Duke, Virginia and UCLA, Cunha chose to play for the Blue Devils based on the best combination of academics and tennis that Duke has to offer. By his own admission, Cunha was overwhelmed by his surroundings in coming to Durham from Brazil. But with the help of former Brazilian teammate Alain Michel, Cunha quickly became adjusted to life in the United States.
“The first huge adjustment was the language, obviously very different than Portuguese,” said Cunha. “It helped to have Alain on the team. I reached out to him and he taught me some things I needed to learn. The first two semesters were pretty tough adjustments.”
Four years later, Cunha has been given the opportunity to lead in the same capacity that Michel did to him, with current freshman Bruno Semenzato, a product of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Cunha and Semenzato are from the same state in Brazil and have known each other since their days in juniors. This past summer, the two teammates paired up and captured the doubles title at the Brazil F13 Futures tournament in June.
“I think Henrique has been great for Bruno,” said head coach Ramsey Smith. “Anytime you have a good friend, you can learn from their experiences. It has made Bruno’s transition a lot easier to have Henrique around.”
Cunha’s teammates and coaches say that the senior is a quiet leader who leads by example. At the start of the 2012-13 campaign, Cunha was unanimously selected as team captain by his teammates.
“Cunha is the perfect example for a successful leader,” Hemmeler said. “He represents Duke in all areas in an impressive way. He not only works hard on the court but also in school, and he obviously displays great character at the same time.”
On the court, Cunha succeeded at Duke from the beginning of his freshman year. He joined Phillip King as only the second national rookie of the year in school history — and he’s the only player in ACC history to win both ACC player and rookie of the year honors in the same season.
Cunha advanced to the NCAA singles semifinals his freshman year, the deepest any Blue Devil has ever gone in the event. He reached the quarterfinals as a sophomore and junior. Entering this season, he had been named the ACC player of the week 14 times in his career, including seven times last spring, and was 26-4 in conference singles matches over three years.
“He is by far the most accomplished player to ever be a part of Duke tennis,” Smith said. “He has played every singles match of his college career at No. 1, singles and doubles, and he is blowing away all of our records. The No. 1 spot is the most difficult spot to win at, but incredibly it has been our strongest spot since Henrique arrived. He has that special quality to raise his level against the best players in the biggest moments. The tougher the situation, the better he is — and that is the sign of a great champion.”
According to Cunha, the biggest adjustment from junior tennis to college tennis was in doubles, where in his freshman year, Cunha teamed with former Blue Devil Reid Carleton, and posted a 41-6 record. The duo was named the 2010 ITA national doubles team of the year. Three matches into the current 2013 dual season, Cunha was able to break the all-time doubles wins record at Duke.
Last fall, Cunha became the first Brazilian to earn a No. 1 ITA singles ranking. At the start of the current spring season, he also sat atop the ITA doubles rankings with partner Hemmeler as a result of capturing the National Indoors.
After he receives a degree in business from Duke this May, Cunha plans to pursue a career on the ATP Tour. He has already competed against many of the top pros in the world. Smith believes Cunha has the potential to become a top-100 player in the world once he does begin to play professionally.
“He has the tools and mentality to where he can do very well,” Smith stated. “His game has improved each year he has been at Duke. He certainly has a shot to do really well on the ATP Tour and I’m confident he will.”
Cunha came to Duke as a freshman in the fall of 2009, Smith’s second season as the men’s tennis coach. In his first year at the helm of the program, the team won 16 matches, the fewest of any season under his guidance. Since Cunha’s arrival as Smith’s first recruit, the team has won no fewer than 20 matches in any season.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Henrique here at Duke,” said Smith, a former All-America who helped lead the Blue Devils to four undefeated ACC seasons during his playing career. “I have a special connection with Henrique because he was my first recruit. He took a chance with me as a young head coach, and he has really jump-started this program in a short amount of time. The team has improved significantly each year and I’m looking forward to a strong finish for Henrique and our entire team this spring.”