DURHAM, N.C. - The regular season meeting between rivals Duke and North Carolina came down to a thrilling third set with the match tied at 3-all for the third consecutive season. After nearly five hours of play, it was 18th-ranked North Carolina that would come out ahead, handing the fifth-ranked Blue Devils a 4-3 loss in their regular season home finale Wednesday at Ambler Tennis Stadium.
Sophomore Chris Mengel, ranked No. 26 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's singles poll, squared off against No. 103 Brennan Boyajian in the deciding match on court two. Mengel took the first set by a 6-4 margin while Boyajian won a second set tiebreaker, 7-2, to force a third and decisive set. With the score of the match locked at three points apiece and Mengel fending off cramping in his leg, the intensity picked up as the two players traded breaks at 3-all in the set. However, Boyajian grabbed a key break to take a 5-4 lead and held on for a 6-4 win, sending the Tar Heels to the 4-3 victory.
"It was a phenomenal effort," said head coach Ramsey Smith of Mengel's performance. "I didn't know if he was going to be able to get up off the changeover at 3-2 just to make it to the other side of the court. He actually had game points the last two games once he got to 4-all. It was just all heart because he couldn't move and he was obviously struggling physically, but he had a phenomenal effort. I'm really proud of him."
Despite dropping the doubles point for just the sixth time this season, Duke (18-4, 7-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) responded with first-set victories on all six courts in singles. Freshman Raphael Hemmeler used a key break at 3-all in the first set of his No. 5 singles matchup against the Tar Heels' Joey Burkhardt to earn a 6-4, 6-2 victory and lead the Blue Devils off the courts. Sophomore Fred Saba then gave Duke a 2-1 advantage in the match, downing William Parker of North Carolina by a 6-1, 6-3 score. Saba improved to 26-10 overall and 8-1 in conference play while extending his win streak to eight consecutive matches.
The Blue Devils expanded their lead to 3-1 when senior Torsten Wietoska outlasted Esben Hess-Olesen in a 7-5, 6-2 decision on court three. Wietoska picked up his career-best 23rd singles victory of the year while moving to 11-4 at the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
The three remaining singles matches on courts one, two and six all went to third sets, with Duke needing just one win to clinch the match. In a showdown of ranked players on court one, junior Henrique Cunha - ranked fourth in the nation - faced No. 33 Jose Hernandez of North Carolina. After splitting the first two sets, Cunha and Hernandez traded breaks throughout most of the third set. A late break by Hernandez proved to be the difference, though, as he upended Cunha by a 7-5 score. The loss was just Cunha's third of the season at the No. 1 position, and halted a five-match win streak by the Jaú, Brazil native.
Freshman Jason Tahir bested the Tar Heels' Oystein Steiro, 7-5, in a first set tiebreaker on court six, but went on to lose hard-fought second and third sets to even the score at 3-all in the match, setting up the decisive contest on No. 2.
"We did some good things today," Smith said. "We bounced back extremely well after losing the doubles point to get six first sets. We obviously got up 3-1 in the match and we had some chances, but I was really proud of the way we played."
The Blue Devils were forced to play from behind after North Carolina took an early 1-0 lead with doubles victories on courts one and two. Senior David Holland and Saba jumped out to a 4-1 lead on their way to an 8-3 victory over the Tar Heels' Hess-Olesen and Steiro in the No. 3 contest, improving to 3-2 overall and 2-0 at the No. 3 position.
On court two, the Duke tandem of sophomore Cale Hammond and Hemmeler battled back from a 4-1 deficit against Boyajian and Cameron Ahari of North Carolina. With Boyajian and Ahari leading at 7-5, Hammond and Hemmeler pushed the score to deuce twice but ultimately fell to the Tar Heels by an 8-5 margin. The loss marked Hammond and Hemmeler's first in 10 matches as a duo, snapping a nine-match win streak.
Despite forcing some tightly-contested games early on in their No. 1 doubles contest, 28th-ranked Cunha and Mengel fell to No. 30 Hernandez and Burkhardt, 8-1.
Wednesday's contest also marked the final regular season match at Ambler Tennis Stadium for seniors Holland, Luke Marchese and Wietoska, who were honored prior to the start of the match.
"They've all done a lot these last four years," Smith said. "Holland - it was one of the better matches I've seen him play at three doubles. Torsten stepped up and beat probably their best spot. Unfortunately, Luke's been a little hurt so he wasn't able to be out there today. It was a tough way to end senior day but I thought we played well."
The Blue Devils fell to 18-4 overall and 7-2 in ACC contests with the loss, while North Carolina improved to 12-5 overall and 9-1 in league play. Duke closes out the regular season this weekend when it travels to No. 70 Maryland on Friday, Apr. 13 at 3 p.m. and Boston College Sunday, Apr. 15 at 12 p.m. The 2012 ACC Men's Tennis Championship is slated for Apr. 19-22 in Cary, N.C.
#18 North Carolina 4, #5 Duke 3 Apr 11, 2012 at Durham, N.C. Ambler Tennis Stadium