By MATTHEW STEVENS
The youth movement of Mississippi State tennis broke through another barrier Saturday afternoon by defeating its arch-rival for the first time since 1999.
The Bulldogs squad that doesn’t have a senior player in its starting lineup ended their 26-match losing streak against Ole Miss at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre in Starkville with a 5-2 victory over the Rebels.
“We’re just getting better every match and that was our goal coming into the season,” Mississippi State head coach Per Nilsson said.
Mississippi State (13-7, 8-3 in Southeastern Conference) began to gain momentum after winning the doubles part despite some controversial maneuvering of the Rebels No. 2 and No.3 teams by Ole Miss head coach Billy Chadwick that Nilsson quickly objected to by Nilsson.
However, the SEC rulebook took precedent over the NCAA rules on doubles substitutions stating: “If one member of the doubles team is removed from the line-up, the remaining player will move down one spot and the next highest doubles team will move up” causing the Bulldogs duo of freshman Malte Stropp and junior Louis Cant to play the ninth-best doubles team in the country in Ole Miss’ Thiemann twins of Chris and Marcel.
Despite being down a break in the match, Stropp and Cant rallied to beat the Thiemann twins to clinch the doubles point for the Bulldogs.
“That wasn’t a lineup they should have been allowed to put out there but (Stropp and Cant) have come so far this year,” Nilsson said. “They play a little unconventional but they’re tough to beat and showed it here.”
While experiencing dominance as a player in the early 90s over Ole Miss (11-8, 5-6 in SEC), Saturday afternoon represented the first victory for Nilsson as a head coach over the instate rival.
In every match State has lost in the 2011 spring, it has begun by dropping the critical doubles point but used that emotional lift into the six singles contests as the Bulldogs took the first set in each of those matches. However, the Bulldogs are now 9-0 in matches where they’ve won the opening two of three doubles matches.
“We’ve talked about it with coaches and teammates and if we happen to win the doubles point against any team in the country, I would say we’re favored to win that match by 80 or 90 percent,” junior Artem Ilyushin said.
Ilyushin and George Coupland won their doubles match easily 8-3 over the Ole Miss pairing of Johan Backstrom and Adrian Skogeng.
Three MSU players won their matches in straight sets including sophomore James Chaudry along with freshmen Zach White and Stropp.
Stropp’s 7-5, 6-2 singles victory over the Rebels Jonas Lutjen gave the Bulldogs a 4-0 overall victory and clinched the team win. The freshman from Germany dropped his racket after he clinched his 10th straight individual win and pounded his chest toward the packed crowd at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre.
“I struggled a little bit with my serve and I was lucky to win that first set but I got the break at 5-5,” Stropp said. “The crowd was awesome with the stands being completely full and it was so much fun to play today. We didn’t want to lose.”
With the team win already in place, Ilyushin put a cap on the day by rallying from down a break in the third set tie-breaker to win the No. 1 singles match against 36th-ranked Marcel Thieman and complete a 6-3, 4-6, 1-0 (10-8) victory.
“I felt like two spots we lost focus after we won (as a team) but Artem seemed to go the other way and think ‘now I can relax and take this guy’,” Nilsson said. “We haven’t been in that position too many times but we’re starting to get there now so they’re going to have to learn if they want to make the NCAA singles because those matches will count.”
After winning the match point, Ilyushin spun around and did his best Rafael Nadal reaction with the double fist pump and leg kick toward the stands.
“Against Ole Miss, I realized you can cut off my leg but I’m not losing this match – it’s never going to happen,” Ilyushin said.
With the victory, Mississippi State earned a first round bye in next week’s SEC Championships in Gainesville, Fla., where the fourth-seeded Bulldogs will play the winner of Arkansas and host Florida.
“We probably are going to have to win two matches at SEC in order to host (a NCAA regional) and we’d like to host but at the same time, I don’t think many teams want us to come to their place,” Nilsson said.