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By MATTHEW STEVENS
To describe Mississippi Stateâs tennis philosophy is a step-by-step process.
Step one: get your passport up to date and stamped a lot.
Itâs surprising to think that a 15-year-old tennis player over 4,000 miles away is potentially training to wear the maroon and white colors when he decides to play at the collegiate level.
Mississippi State, which is ranked 21st in the country after clinching the Western Division at Alabama last weekend, has all of its top six players on the roster being born outside of the United States with only California native Artem Ilyushin being the only player with instant American citizenship when they arrived on the Starkville campus.
Itâs been this influence of young foreign talent getting valuable experience along with a pair of talented freshman (Malte Stropp and Zach White) in the fold to lift Ole Missâ run of nine straight division titles.
â(Ole Miss) was doing what we were doing in the 1990âs and just kept on rolling,â Mississippi State head coach Per Nilsson said. âWhen I came here, one of our goals was to get back on track and top them.â
Mississippi State will get a chance to do just that at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre today when the 30th-ranked Rebels come to Starkville for the final Southeastern Conference dual match of the season and a noon contest that will decide if MSU receives a first-round bye in the upcoming conference tournament.
âIt wasnât a big celebration almost when we beat Alabama (last weekend) and found out they lost,â Nilsson said. âItâs was kind of like âyeahâŠwhatever,â we still want them on Saturday.â
Nilsson was a player on the 1993 team that won a SEC regular season title but in his previous three years as coach, he was struggling through a rebuilding process that saw the Bulldogs total just 10 regular-season league wins.
âFor the first time, we have a spot all the way through where we can win,â Nilsson said. âWe would go into matches knowing we were down two or three to zero and just tried to get the other ones but itâs just so hard when you spot the other team two points.â
Stropp and White have come in and solidified the fourth and sixth singles spots in the singles lineup while also having the second and third most doubles wins of anybody else on the MSU team.
Stropp currently has a nine-match winning streak in singles that includes knocking off the 56th-best player in the country in Tennesseeâs Matteo Fago and only going three sets three times during this streak.
White, a 6-foot-1 freshman from Canada, is currently the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week while compiling a 10-6 record on court six this spring.
âThey were good to start with and our top recruits,â Nilsson said. âTheyâve just stepped in right away and theyâre not really playing like freshman â thatâs been the big key.â
The 22-5 overall singles record for Stropp is more impressive when you account for the fact that the German had never played on a hardcourt asphalt surface until arriving at MSU this past fall. Stropp said heâd trained and competed in his native country as a junior on clay and carpeted courts requiring a dramatically different skill sets focusing on the volley and return of serve than the power game and shorter points in American on hardcourts.
âIâm actually kind of surprised that Iâm actually playing my best tennis right now,â Stropp said. âIn the fall, I didnât like how (the surface) played and it felt kind of weird.â
Stropp, who described himself as a âgrinderâ on clay courts that helped him make a semifinal appearance in a ATP Futures singles tournament in Roemerberg, Germany while he was still in high school, said heâs concentrated on making putting more speed in his first serve.
âWith Per and (MSU assistant coach) Matt Hill, we work on my serve and forehand so I can dictate the points,â Stropp said.
Nilsson also experimented with the lineup when he asked junior Louis Cant, who had just previously been a second alternate for the NCAA singles tournament, to move down to the number five spot in the lineup to make room for the new players and give State a better chance to put a point on the board from that court.
The Bulldogs third-year head coach wasnât sure how his star from Belgium would react to the news fearing heâd see it as a demotion and let that affect his play on the court.
âLouis maybe in the beginning of the year felt like âhey, whatâs going on, I played number one last year and now Iâm at five?â Nilsson said. âNow we have five guys that could all play one and it took him a bit to get used to that role. Once he got over that, I had a couple of coaches say the other day heâs probably the best five in the country.â
Cant is now 14-3 in dual matches this season in the five spot and is ranked as the 77th singles player in the world.
âIt doesnât matter where we play in the lineup because every win is important,â Cant said. âThe top six on our team can all make NCAAs and we all have a big shot to play there and to be dominant.â
The rejoining of doubles tandem George Coupland and Ilyushin has sparked the MSU effort in winning of one of the three doubles points in a dual match. The duo has a 7-1 record this spring after fell in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Championships to 13th-ranked Aleksey Bessenov and Oleksandr Nedovyesov of Oklahoma State, in a tight three-set battle, 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-2.
âGeorge and Artem were playing together early but the other two teams were awful and then George and Artem started playing bad because I think they were feeling too much pressure,â Nilsson said. âIt took us about two months to start playing decent, and we found some pairings that were good. Weâre not playing great doubles yet but weâre definitely playing better.â
The Bulldogs players are extra motivated to face Ole Miss after dropping four of the first five matches in the annual River Hills Cup match in Jackson. A win would clinch the bye and likely set up a quarterfinal match against host Florida.
âOf course, the rivalry is there and we know weâll have a great crowd, we know that,â Cant said. âYou take a just a normal match but you want to beat them more because itâs Ole Miss. It doesnât matter who we play next week at SEC because if we play the way we can, weâll do well.â