By Sarah Leggett, GoDuke the Magazine
K-Chen … Kel … Chen … Kelz … no matter the nickname, you’re going to want to remember the name Kelly Chen.
If you ask anyone around the Duke women’s tennis program for words to describe her, chances are you’ll hear responses such as passionate, warrior, legend and fighter.
There’s zero doubt that Chen is a true fighter and the essence of Duke women’s tennis, and during the week of the 2019 NCAA Championships, she demonstrated that to a T.
First, let’s talk about K-Chen PRIOR to her memorable tournament appearance.
As a rookie, she was named ACC Freshman of the Year after her standout 2018 campaign, becoming the 12th Blue Devil in program history to garner the award. In conference play, Chen was absolutely flawless with a 14-0 record and went 40-8 overall. She collected ITA Carolina Region Freshman of the Year honors, was selected second team All-ACC and became the first Blue Devil to reach the round of 16 in the NCAA Singles Championship since 2014.
At the end of her first year, Chen was ranked No. 28 nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) and reached her highest ranking of No. 22 throughout the year.
Pretty impressive for a rookie, right?
Now for the 2019 season. #AllUs — the team’s motto this year — was all-encompassing of what it means to be part of the DWT family. Every member of the team was vital to its success as a whole and man, did they have another great season, as their 27-4 record and No. 4 final ranking would suggest.
The campaign featured Duke in the finals of the ACC Championships, the semifinals of the NCAA Team Championships and the ITA Indoor National Championships in Seattle, and saw the squad finish a perfect 14-0 on its home courts. Duke has a strong tradition of playing well at home, winning 41 straight matches in Durham. This season marked the ninth undefeated home campaign under head coach Jamie Ashworth.
The Blue Devils had an incredible run in the NCAA Championships for the second straight season, one which came to an end in heartbreaking fashion in Orlando at the USTA National Campus, when the Blue Devils fell to top-ranked Georgia, 4-2, in semifinal action.
Let’s back up for just a second and set the scene for what happened prior to the loss to Georgia … the sweet, sweet victory over fourth-ranked South Carolina just the day before in the quarterfinals.
Obviously, everyone was ecstatic, including Chen — until she collapsed moments after rookie Margaryta Bilokin clinched the match for the Blue Devils.
Chen had grinded through a tough, unfinished match against No. 81 Mia Horvit on court three and started cramping as soon as Duke secured the win. Without going into too much medical detail, the chances of her being hydrated and rested enough to play less than 24 hours later appeared slim.
But Chen looked pain in the eye and said, “Not today.”
“Four hours before I left the hospital, I was just on the ground in a pain that I've never experienced before,” Chen recalled. “I didn't have any doubt that I wasn't going to play. I knew that it was the semifinals the next day; I wanted to show up on the court and try my best to get a win for my team. A huge credit goes to athletic trainer Tara (Moore) and all the coaches for staying up late with me at the hospital as well as my teammates for constantly checking up on me throughout the night. Without them, I donʼt think I would’ve believed I could push through.”
Chen returned to the court Saturday for the semifinal match versus Georgia and tallied Duke’s first point of the match with a 6-2, 7-5 victory on court three over No. 69 Lourdes Carle.
Duke’s run in the team event eventually came to a close that day, but Chen still had the opportunity to make a run of her own in the singles tournament that began two days after the loss to Georgia.
“Having a tough loss against such a great team was heartbreaking, but I tried to be positive on the court,” she said. “I wasn't done with NCAAs yet. I knew I had more left in the tank. I wanted to get deep in the draw and represent those four letters on my chest.”
It’s one thing to want to do well for yourself, but when you have so much more to play for, it means everything.
Chen entered the singles championship ranked No. 21 by the ITA and defeated three higher-ranked foes en route to the semifinals.
She knocked off No. 53 Jessica Failla of Pepperdine (6-2, 6-4) in the round of 64, No. 10 Anna Rogers of NC State (7-5, 4-6, 6-3) in the round of 32, No. 6 Fernanda Contreras of Vanderbilt (4-6, 7-5, 6-2) in the Sweet 16 and No. 20 Sara Daavettila of North Carolina (6-3, 6-4) in the quarterfinals.
“I went into those matches with a positive mindset,” Chen said. “Iʼve put in hard work this season and there was no doubt that I could compete at a high level against some of the best players in the country.”
Prior to each match during the singles championship, Chen worked with Moore, associate head coach Matt Manasse and team personnel Mark Watt to prepare physically and mentally for every challenge.
“Kelly put in a lot of work throughout the week to make sure she was doing what she could to recover and prepare every day,” Moore said. “She did diligent warmups with Mark and Matt and cool downs that included time in the ice baths and stretching. We emphasized hydration and proper nutrition and utilized various recovery modalities including pool recovery/warmup sessions in the mornings before evening matches. Our pre-match routine with me was day-to-day based on how she was feeling, and we did a lot of soft tissue work to help her just feel loose and ready to go.”
So, not only was Chen’s performance on the court a credit to her ability to fight and overcome adversity, but a huge credit to the amazing support staff surrounding her.
Chen’s memorable season came to a close in the semifinals to second-ranked Katarina Jokic of Georgia as she fell 7-5, 6-2.
Throughout the team and individual tournament, Chen battled spending time in the hospital, endured multiple IV drips, but always rose to the occasion and left it all on the court. It may not have been the storybook ending she wanted, but the future is brighter than ever for the rising junior.
“Right now I have a momentum that I want to carry throughout junior year and keep building up my strengths,” Chen said. “Hopefully I can become a role model to my teammates. I have two years of college under my belt and it would be great if I could be the person they can look up to.”
Chen closed out her sophomore year ranked eighth in the nation with a 35-9 overall record that included 22-4 in dual action and 10-2 in conference play. She defeated 18 ranked opponents and teamed up with recent graduate Ellyse Hamlin to form a highly successful doubles team that finished the season ranked No. 29 in the country.
Before her loss in the semifinals, Chen won 12 consecutive matches dating back to April 10 and earned ITA All-America honors for the second straight year, as well as a spot on the All-ACC team.
“Her success this season is a tribute to her and her personality,” head coach Ashworth said. “She set out to do great things. She represented our program and our school the best we could possibly ask. Everyone around our program should be proud of her.”
Let’s circle back to those words that describe Chen. Passionate. Warrior. Legend. Fighter.
If her sophomore year didn’t provide a compelling enough case that she is in fact all those things, come back for another look next season. You won’t be disappointed.