URBANA, ILL. – Playing late into the night, the ninth-seeded Duke men’s tennis team came from behind two times to upset eighth-seeded Kentucky, 4-2, Thursday night at the Kahn Outdoor Tennis Center. With the win, Duke advances to 25-5 on the season and reaches the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship for the second consecutive season.
“Going into the match, we said if everyone takes care of what they need to do, full effort, and execute their game plan, we’ll have a chance,” said assistant coach Jonathan Stokke. “That’s all we asked for was a chance. We gave ourselves that chance, and we won the pressure points."
Duke dropped the doubles point for just the fifth time this season after the two squads battled for the crucial point for an hour and 30 minutes. The Wildcats claimed the first match of the evening, as freshman Michael Redlicki and sophomore Jason Tahir were defeated at the No. 2 position by Ryuji Hirooka and Beck Pennington, 8-0. The Blue Devils responded as the dynamic duo of senior Henrique Cunha and Raphael Hemmeler picked up their team-leading 36th victory of the dual season over Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai, 8-4. Cunha and Hemmeler went up two breaks, 5-2, before the Jomby and Lai responded with a break of their own against Hemmeler the very next game. After Cunha and Hemmeler reclaimed their two break advantage, 7-4, Hemmeler closed out the match and the win for 2nd-ranked tandem.
In the decisive doubles match, the duo of junior Fred Saba and freshman Bruno Semenzato fought hard but fell to Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra, 9-7. Trailing by a break, 3-5, Saba and Semenzato rallied to draw the match back to serve, 4-5. The teams traded service games, before the Kentucky tandem was able to break Semenzato’s serve for the 9-7 victory.
In singles, the Blue Devils came out strong by taking five-of-six first sets. Tahir evened the team score, 1-1, after he downed Pennington, 6-3, 6-2, at the No. 6 position. The match started with four consecutive breaks from the two players. Tahir was able to hold serve, 3-3, before earning two more breaks on Pennington to take the first set, 6-3. A native of Rochester, N.Y., Tahir was able to break Pennington two times in the second set on his way to his 30th victory of the season.
The Wildcats regained the slim, 2-1, lead after Jomby defeated Saba, 6-4, 6-2. After earning a break to bring the match to serve, 4-5, in the first set, Saba could not hold his own serve and dropped the set, 6-4. Jomby gained the early advantage with a break in the second set, as Saba falls to 26-10 on the season.
Playing in his first match of the 2013 NCAA Championships, junior Chris Mengel quickly evened the match at two-all with a straight set, 6-2, 7-5, win over Kentucky’s Lai at the No. 4 spot in the lineup. Mengel was able to quickly win the first break of the match, 2-1, before ultimately cruising through the first set, 6-2. In the second set, Mengel recorded a key break to take a slim 6-5 advantage, before holding serve to capture his 27th victory of the season.
Cunha, the 2013 ACC Player of the Year, gave Duke its first lead of the evening after he edged Rossi, 7-5, 6-4. Rossi gained the early advantage after breaking Cunha’s serve to take a brief 2-1 lead in the first set. Cunha closed the first set by breaking Rossi, 7-5, and winning the set. In the second set, the players traded service games, before Cunha was able to break Rossi’s serve and gain the 5-3 advantage. Rossi came back with a break of his own the next game, before Cunha, the senior captain, finished with a break and the 7-5, 6-4 victory.
“Our team worked so hard for the last couple weeks,” said Cunha. “We were ready for this tournament. This is my senior year. This is my last time at this tournament, so I wanted to leave it all out there on the court. I played well. I’m glad that I played well and the guys stepped up.”
After winning the first set, 6-3, against Kentucky’s Grant Roberts, Hemmeler dropped the second set, 7-5. In the decisive third set and the match on the line, Hemmeler went up a break, 3-2, and held serve in the next game. In Roberts final service game, Hemmeler was able to go up a big second break, before holding serve to complete the 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 win. The match sealed the match for Duke and sends the squad to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season.
“It was a nice situation to be able in, I played well in the first set and won that, 6-3.” Hemmeler said. “In the final set, I just tried to play loose and enjoy the moment. It is a nice situation to be in.”
At the No. 3 position, Redlicki was in a decisive third set, before his match against Minc was left unfinished, 6-3, 3-6, 2-4.
The win sets up a meeting in the quarterfinals with top-seeded UCLA Saturday, May 18 at 5 p.m. ET. The quarterfinal appearance will be the eighth in the program’s history.