"I have three seniors returning, all of whom were starters last year. But the problem with those three seniors is that we had a lot of problems with foot injuries that started occurring in March. And one of those seniors had foot surgery. And we had three girls who had stress fractures in their feet.
"If we can get everybody who was injured in the spring back full go and healthy, we are going to be a lot better. We just have to be smarter in how we train them. And we just have to be more careful in how we work them."
Who are the three seniors and what position do they play?
"The three seniors are Martina Banikova, who played number one for me for last year. She had a tough year last year because she played injured the entire year, but the year before she made it to postseason and was top 30 in the country. But for me, my hopes for her this year are very high if we can get her recovered.
"Daniela Juskova, who had foot surgery, was lost to us around mid-March. She was playing four or five for me.
"Elna de Villiers played two for me two years ago, and this past year she played at four for me toward the end of the season."
Going back to the injury situation, was it unusual to have so many injuries?
"Without a doubt. We've never had that many injuries before."
Did you ever figure out what may have caused the injuries?
"We looked at our training, we looked at our practices. We also checked with (MSU team doctor) Dr. (Rusty) Linton. I do know there were a certain amount of players in a particular tennis shoe. And those players who wore that shoe had problems with their feet. And all my players who weren't in that shoe didn't have problems. But hypothetically, none of us really know the true cause.
"I do know this, they are all doing better, although they aren't at full practice range. They are going about an hour today, which is much more than they were doing in May. They are all in different shoes now and they haven't been complaining about their feet."
Tennis really has two seasons - the fall and the spring. What are the differences in the two seasons?
"The fall is more for development. The spring is when it counts. In the fall you can take a player and put them in a tournament, assess their game and work on developing that player for January. In the fall a lot more is put on them as individuals. They are winning matches for (individual) improvement. In the spring we have to win matches for the team."
Who are your newcomers and where do you see them fitting on the team?
"We have two freshmen from Russia, Natalia Mayuk and Oleysia Tsigvintseva, and another one, Jordan Zachary, who is a walk-on from Brandon, Mississippi whose dad also played tennis here.
"The two I expect to make an immediate impact are the two kids from Russia. But they are young, though. One turned 17 in May and the other one is about to turn 18 in December. So, they are still babies. But if they can handle the transition that is going to help us.
"I don't expect Jordan to make an immediate impact because she has been out of tennis for a couple of months due to an injury. She had a wrist injury and had a scope on it.
"The thing about a lot of the Mississippi kids, if they are a good walk-on, they develop at a pretty quick pace because Mississippi is not producing a lot of tennis players and this gives them an environment where they are playing tennis constantly. So, we look for her to make improvements and help us in the practices. And, hopefully, she'll get some match experience in the fall, then we'll see how much she progresses and how much she can contribute in the spring.
If you were to predict who your starters will be at this very moment, who would they be?
"If I were to predict right now who my starters would be, and my three seniors are healthy, then they would be (three of my) starters. They have the discipline, the focus and they definitely have the tools. And my two freshmen would be pushing my others. The way I've seen them hit now and in the summer, I will be surprised if they are sitting on the bench."
You mentioned that you feel your team will be better this coming spring as long as you stay healthy. How much better do you expect your team to be?
"We went 0-12 in the conference last year. But we played lights out in a lot of the matches. And we had to play through the injuries. We lost to Tennessee, who was top 20 at the time, 4-3. We lost to Vanderbilt, who was 14th at the time, and it came down to four single matches that we lost three out of four in three sets. A lot of people can look at 0-12 and say that we had a really bad year last year. Yes, people who don't understand the ins and outs of a match can say that, but anyone who came to our matches knew we were pretty good last year. We won all of our non-conference matches with the exception of one. And nine of our opponents, in conference, were top 35 throughout the year. "
When did the injuries on your team start to happen?
"My number one player's injury starting back in October, almost a year ago. And it progressively got worse. But she was just too good to take out of the lineup. We just had to make her play through it because we didn't have the numbers. Then it really started hitting us in March. We thought we could get her through a couple of matches, but we had to pull her in the middle of the Alabama match. I had to take her out of the singles and we lost the match 4-3.
"But it's like I told my players - every team has adversity. We aren't going to be a team that tries to find a reason why we lost. We are going to need to find reasons as to what will make us better, so we can win."
But injuries sure don't help you win matches?
"No, they don't help. But you know what? If you put all your focus into the injuries, it brings you down big-time. I have to look at who we have healthy and how much better we are doing now. And that gives us a lot more to look forward to.
"Things we can look forward to is we are young and I think we are going to be really exciting to watch. We have two little blondes from Russia who can knock the stew out of the ball.
"The thing that is good about this team is we have about seven players who are going to be competing for four positions. The two Russians have given us quite a bit more depth, something that we needed. It's made the top a little bit more stronger. And it has definitely made our middle a little bit stronger. And without a doubt, it has put more pressure on my players at the bottom.
"In tennis, most teams carry anywhere from seven to nine girls. If you are carrying that amount and your five and six are clearly better than your seven and eight, they become, in my opinion, complacent. But when you have seven or eight girls who could, on any given day, play three or four in your lineup, there is no room for complacency. That will make our practice more competitive because they know whether they play or not will be based on their daily performance. And when you have performance on a daily basis, that is when you will see bigger moves in improvement."
If you have that kind of talent, then you may have three spots that won't be set in stone when the season starts.
"I honestly think I have three spots that are wide open."
Do you prefer a set lineup when the season starts or do you want to alternate girls in the last three spots?
"If you look back at our teams that have been better, we had people that you could move around. You want that.
"Maybe it's the same in men's sport. But when you are talking about winning matches, you are talking about so much more than just hitting a tennis ball. There's the emotions of the girl. To me, the biggest challenge is having the girls come in every day feeling good. If they aren't feeling good, they aren't going to play well.
"The biggest thing I've had to deal with on my team has been more off-court than on-court. If it was only on-court, it would be a breeze. But trying to get them to find the right balance where they are committed to their academics and making good grades and at the same time they are giving everything to their athletics, that is a challenge every day."
How do you know if they are focused that day?
"I can tell by looking at their faces when they walk in the door."
How do you get those girls focused that aren't?
"I try to get to know my players in a way where I can really communicate with them. I want to know them well enough to know what I can and can't say to them on any given day. Some days you can talk to an athlete until you are blue in the face, but sometimes they simply are going to have bad days. But I really think it is part of our job to figure out what makes this girl tic, and what is the way we can make them play the best tennis that they can play."
Most of your girls are really far from home. How do you and they cope with that?
"Because they are so far from home, they are looking at me to be there on-court and off-court. I have to be available to them on-court and, emotionally, off-court."
Are you almost like a second mother to them?
"Oh, without a doubt."
Who are others they can talk to other than you?
"I have a few players who are in the FCA. They can talk to Josh Gilbreath and (his wife) Ashlee. And we have enough people in place to give them a good support system.
"And all of my team members are very close to their families. While their families are far away, my girls are very fortunate because most get to go home for Christmas and most get to go home during the summer. So, the longest they are away from home is five months. In my opinion, that is easy because when I was in college I was away from home for eighteen months at a time. That was tough."
Does having access to the internet help them as far as keeping in contact with their families?
"Yes, without a doubt. The internet has opened up communication a great deal. I think my number one player talks to her parents just about every day on a chat line."
What are your expectations for this team?
"If you are looking at wins and losses, yes, we have to improve. And we did improve on some things last year. But if you didn't come to our matches you didn't see them.
"But we are better this year. Right now, we are healthy enough to win matches. I have nine girls and all nine are practicing. All have been approved for practices. And that is great news. If we can keep that up, then we should be ok. Year in, year out, we are always competing with the LSUs, the Alabamas, the Auburns. If you look back at our record over the last few years, we are always going back and forth with those teams.
"But everybody else is better. Do I think we will win more matches? Yes, I do. But I'm sure every other coach in our conference thinks the same thing. You can't factor in if you are going to have injuries.
"But I would like to think that we are good enough to compete for a West title. That is our ultimate goal. And in '05 we won the West. Every year that is our goal."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.