As two of the top recruits in the class of 2011, freshmen Raphael Hemmeler and Jason Tahir arrived at Duke with a lot of expectations. In just the first spring season of their collegiate careers, both rookies have become fixtures in the Blue Devils’ lineup.
Hemmeler, who hails from Zurich, Switzerland, competed extensively on the International Tennis Federation’s Juniors and Futures circuits. Tahir was the top prospect from New York and amassed plenty of playing experience at the high school level and in United States Tennis Association tournaments nationwide. Since joining the Duke program, both have blossomed under the guidance of coaches Ramsey Smith and Jonathan Stokke, as well as their older teammates.
“I knew they were going to be good coming in, but I wasn’t expecting them to be quite this good,” Smith said of the freshman duo. “They both love the game, they’re both passionate about it, they’re both team players and they’re both playing really good tennis.”
While Tahir and Hemmeler say the fall season was a helpful experience in navigating the transition to the collegiate level, they have taken their play to new heights this spring. Tahir has been a force in the bottom half of the singles lineup, as evident in the 10-match win streak he posted in March. Hemmeler started off the dual match season nearly perfect at the No. 5 and 6 spots before spending time at the No. 3 position, and has also seen significant time in doubles action.
“It’s of course nice that we can help the team,” Hemmeler says. “For me, it doesn’t really matter who is playing when we are winning ... I really enjoy practices and working with the guys and the coaches.”
Both freshmen cite the team’s trip to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Team Indoor Championships in February — where the Blue Devils defeated a pair of top-10 opponents in UCLA and Florida — as a turning point in terms of their level of confidence on the courts. The opportunity to contribute directly to the team’s success throughout the spring has not been lost on either player.
“We have such a good team that, to play consistently in singles, it means a lot,” Tahir said. “I started out a little bit slow but I’ve picked it up since and it’s awesome to contribute because we have such a deep team.”
One of the biggest differences between juniors and collegiate tennis has also been a beneficial one for the two rookies. While Tahir and Hemmeler competed as individuals in a number of tournaments during their prep careers, the team atmosphere of college tennis has been an asset for both players.
“I can learn from everyone on the team, especially from the seniors,” Hemmeler says. “It’s been nice because you’re part of a team and they support you on the court ... You fight for a team and for your teammates. It’s individual in juniors when you’re just playing for yourself. Here, you don’t want to lose or let your teammates down.”
For Hemmeler, one of four international players on the Duke roster, the support of his teammates has been crucial given how far away he is from his family in Switzerland. Similarly, Tahir says the tight bonds that have developed on this year’s squad have eased his acclimation to the rigorous academic demands and general campus culture at Duke. “Everyone works really hard and they all lead by example,” Tahir said. “Ramsey said this is one of his closest teams. I don’t know anything different, but we’re definitely really close and it helps for sure when the matches get close.”
Although they have their sights set on someday leading the Blue Devils to an NCAA title — a goal that seems even more plausible considering the strength of the team’s four commitments for the 2012-13 season — Tahir and Hemmeler remain focused on continued improvement this spring. But their performances have undoubtedly been an indication of good things to come, both in the latter half of the 2012 season and over the next three years of their careers.
“They’ve both been awesome to have, starting with attitude and the work ethic — just the full package,” Smith says. “They’re both literally perfect teammates and team players, so I’m looking forward to having them for a couple more years.”
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