While the face at the helm of the program has changed, the results to this point have not as the Mississippi State tennis squad has opened up play in strong fashion in the 2015 season, the first with Matt Roberts, who took over the program after Per Nilsson left to take the women's head coaching job at Pepperdine, as the head coach of the Bulldogs.
Roberts, who had spent the previous two years as an assistant coach at Mississippi State, played an important role in the development of the program before he became the head coach of the Bulldogs, and his efforts were noted in his hiring for the position.
"It means a lot because Per and I worked really hard together to continue this program's success from before I got here, and it is an honor to be here and to continue the culture and environment that Per and I committed to," said Roberts. "It's great to see things going the way they are going now. We had a great weekend last weekend, so things are off good start.
The Bulldogs picked up their first win under Roberts by knocking of Jackson State 7-0 in the first of two opening Saturday matches. While some may have expected some jitters from the new head coach, Roberts said his feelings on the first match of the season did not change because of his new position.
"To be honest with you, it was just like another first match of the season," said Roberts. "I don't really think too much about if I'm the head or the assistant coach; it's just about trying to get the job done and trying to make sure your players are prepared for the match, are organized and have everything ready to go for the match. We just went to work that day and got the season started off well."
Mississippi State moved to 2-0 on the season just a few hours later with a 4-0 victory over Alabama State at the A. J. Pitts Tennis Centre in Starkville.
The competition for the Bulldogs picked up the next weekend as Mississippi State traveled to Berkeley, California, for the ITA Kickoff Weekend. Four squads, No. 15 California, the host team, No. 27 North Carolina State, No. 30 Harvard, and No. 21 Mississippi State, squared off in play similar to a regional in the NCAA tournament.
"It's a pretty tough tournament because we have a lottery at the end of the season, and we get to pick where we want to go if we are outside of the top-16," said Roberts. "We knew Cal was going to lose a couple of players, and Harvard and NC State both had the same idea. We had four teams in the top-25 in there."
The Bulldogs won their opening match 4-3 over North Carolina State, rallying to claim four singles courts after losing the doubles point to open play. After Tassilo Schmid dropped a 6-1, 6-3 decision, Florian Lakat put the Bulldogs on the board with a 7-6(5), 6-2 win. The Bulldogs picked up the next two points as well with victories by Juan Cruz Estevarena and Rishab Agarwal.
North Carolina State tied the match at 3-3 with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 victory by Thomas Wiegel, leaving the Bulldogs' Mate Cutura and the Wolfpack's Beck Bond as the players that would decide the match.
Cutura took a 5-3 lead in the third set, but dropped the break to bring both players back on serve. Bond, up 40-15 in the twelfth game of the set, could not hold serve to send the match to a tiebreaker, giving Cutura a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory to clinch the match for Mississippi State.
"It was one of those matches where the doubles point was going to be big; we knew that, and we lost the doubles point," said Roberts. "We came back fighting in singles, and it came down to our new guy from Croatia, Mate Cutura. Mate did a great job under pressure with everybody watching him. He came out with the win, 7-5 in the third set, and it's great for him because he is new to the program and new to the big moments and the SEC level of tennis. For him to get his first win in that big moment was a great way for him to build confidence. He said it was his dream come true to clinch for his team in the SEC, so that was pretty cool."
The next day, the Bulldogs picked up the doubles point, but they came up short against the Golden Bears, dropping a 4-2 decision.
The No. 23 Bulldogs return to action in a double header Friday, playing No. 75 Rice at 1 pm and Alcorn State at 6pm. The Bulldogs finish up the weekend with a matchup against No. 42 Texas Tech at 11 am on Sunday.
"[Fans] can expect to see our guys playing with a lot of energy," said Roberts. "In a lot of college tennis matches,since it's an individual sport, a lot of time, players focus on themselves and their court. We try to make it more of a six-person match where everyone is shouting each other's name and using each other for momentum and energy."
Those attending Friday's matches will receive schedule cards and koozies and have a chance to win a Hail State gift bag. Sunday will be "Salute Those Who Serve Day" to honor all military personnel. Players will also sign autographs following the match.