Duke's Kelly Chen:

Full-body cramp to NCAA champ?

Arthur Kapetanakis  |  May 21, 2019
ORLANDO, FL - MAY 17: Kelly Chen of Duke in action during the Women’s quarterfinal singles matches between South Carolina and Duke during the 2019 NCAA National Championships at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida on May 17, 2019. (Photo by Joe Murphy/USTA)

ORLANDO, Fla. – As the clock approached midnight on Friday at the USTA National Campus, Duke sophomore Kelly Chen was flat on her back on the blue hard courts, suffering from severe, full-body cramps. The Blue Devils had just beaten No. 4-seeded South Carolina to earn a place in in the NCAA semifinals for the second straight year, but the ITA’s No. 21-ranked singles player’s jubilation was short-lived. 


Despite battling quad and calf cramps throughout her No. 3 singles match, Chen grinded out a third-set lead before freshman teammate Margaryta Bilokin clinched the dual-match victory on Court 6.


“After the match had ended, I celebrated a little bit,” she recalled. “I jogged over there and I think it was a mistake, jogging, because it made things worse. I lied down, and I couldn’t stop cramping after that. ADVERTISEMENT It was hard for me. It was my first time like that.”


“You felt bad for her,” associate head coach Matt Manasse told “I’ve had full-body cramps, and I’ve seen it before in other players. You knew she’d be OK, but you didn’t want to see her in pain, so that was tough.”


An ambulance was called to the Collegiate Center, and Chen was transported to a nearby hospital, accompanied by athletic trainer Tara Moore. Two hours and two bags of IV drip later, she was met by Manasse and head coach Jamie Ashworth, who delivered the cheeseburger and fries the sophomore requested.


The Duke contingent returned to the team hotel after 4 a.m., less than 14 hours before their national semifinal was set for its first serve. To no one’s surprise, Chen was back on the court for Saturday’s match, ready to take on the top team in the country in Georgia.


“After last night, we weren’t sure what we were going to get out of her,” Ashworth said in a post-match press conference. “We knew she would give 100 percent. We weren’t sure what that 100 percent would be.”


What the Blue Devils got was an inspired singles performance. Chen’s 6-2, 7-5 win over Georgia’s Lourdes Carle put the ACC outfit on the board for the first time in the Final Four matchup.


Though her team fell to the Bulldogs in a 4-2 epic, Chen’s perseverance shined through.


“The effort Kelly put in was amazing,” said Ashworth. “Couldn’t be prouder of that, the effort she put in to be able to come back today against a really good player. She knew it was going to be a physical match. She said just this morning, ‘I know it’s going to be physical,’ and it was physical. A lot of forward movement, a lot of low, slice balls that can tax your legs and back. She gave us everything she could and it was great.”


The semifinal loss ended Duke’s team season, but Chen (alongside teammates Maria Mateas and Meible Chi) still had more battles to fight, in the NCAA singles tournament. In Monday’s opening round, she beat Pepperdine’s Jessica Failla, 6-2, 6-4, to advance.


With two wins in three days following Friday night’s ordeal, is it safe to say that Chen has recovered?


“Mentally, I don’t think so,” she said, still shaken by her first-ever ride in an ambulance. “Physically, I’m OK. I just took another ice bath. We’ll see.”


The sophomore has set a goal of competing in the singles final, according to Manasse. 


“She has her sights set on a long week here,” he explained. “We have a couple more steps to go to get there [to the final], but she’s ready and I’m not surprised. She’s a competitor and she leaves it out there.”


After opening-round defeats for Mateas and Chi, who lined up at the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, for Duke this postseason, Chen is flying the flag for the Blue Devils in the singles competition. The school also qualfiied a doubles team for the individual event, in the former ITA No. 1 pairing of Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin. 


On Tuesday, Chen continued her mission and knocked off No. 9-16 seed Anna Rogers of North Carolina State to reach the singles Round of 16.


“I’m trying to give it all I have here,” she offered. “We’ll see how much I have left in the tank.”


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