By MATTHEW STEVENS
To describe Mississippi State’s tennis philosophy is a step-by-step process.
Step one: get your passport up to date and stamped a lot.
It’s 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.
It’s 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 Miss’ run of nine straight division titles.
“(Ole Miss) was doing what we were doing in the 1990’s and just kept on rolling,” Mississippi State head coach Per Nilsson said. “When I came here, one of our goals was to get back on track and top them.”
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.
“It wasn’t a big celebration almost when we beat Alabama (last weekend) and found out they lost,” Nilsson said. “It’s was kind of like ‘yeah…whatever,” we still want them on Saturday.”
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.
“For the first time, we have a spot all the way through where we can win,” Nilsson said. “We would go into matches knowing we were down two or three to zero and just tried to get the other ones but it’s just so hard when you spot the other team two points.”
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 Tennessee’s 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.
“They were good to start with and our top recruits,” Nilsson said. “They’ve just stepped in right away and they’re not really playing like freshman – that’s been the big key.”
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 he’d 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.
“I’m actually kind of surprised that I’m actually playing my best tennis right now,” Stropp said. “In the fall, I didn’t like how (the surface) played and it felt kind of weird.”
Stropp, who described himself as a “grinder” 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 he’s concentrated on making putting more speed in his first serve.
“With Per and (MSU assistant coach) Matt Hill, we work on my serve and forehand so I can dictate the points,” 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 wasn’t sure how his star from Belgium would react to the news fearing he’d see it as a demotion and let that affect his play on the court.
“Louis maybe in the beginning of the year felt like ‘hey, what’s going on, I played number one last year and now I’m at five?” Nilsson said. “Now 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 he’s probably the best five in the country.”
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.
“It doesn’t matter where we play in the lineup because every win is important,” Cant said. “The top six on our team can all make NCAAs and we all have a big shot to play there and to be dominant.”
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.
“George 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,” Nilsson said. “It took us about two months to start playing decent, and we found some pairings that were good. We’re not playing great doubles yet but we’re definitely playing better.”
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.
“Of course, the rivalry is there and we know we’ll have a great crowd, we know that,” Cant said. “You take a just a normal match but you want to beat them more because it’s Ole Miss. It doesn’t matter who we play next week at SEC because if we play the way we can, we’ll do well.”