One on One With Tennis Coach Per Nilsson

Mississippi State men's tennis coach Per Nilsson talks about this year's tennis team, which starts the fall season Friday at the Southern Intercollegiate tournament in Athens, Georgia.

Talk about your returning players.
"We have four guys returning - Ryan Farlow, Tanner Stump, Antonio Lastre and Christopher Doerr. We had two guys graduate and three guys who transferred. I'm really excited about the four guys who return.

"The thing about losing five guys and bringing in five or more guys, that is going to give everybody a chance to play pretty much anywhere. The guys we are bringing in are talented and have a lot of potential but they don't have the experience that the guys who have been here have."

What positions did the four guys play last season?
"Chris and Ryan played three and four singles; they kind of swapped back and forth. Antonio played five and six and Tanner was six and seven. Chris and Tanner were our best doubles team. They played three doubles. And Ryan played two doubles."

What is the difference between your returning guys this year compared to last year?
"They are really excited about the new guys coming in because they have met them and know the chemistry this year is going to be really good. Sometimes, you see guys get a little worried when new guys come in, but the guys we have coming back are really great guys. Plus, they see the chance, if they work hard, to move up. And I hope they do that because it would be much better to have guys who have played here before higher in the lineup because they have that experience."

What are your expectations for the newcomers?
"We have three (newcomers) that are here right now - George Coupland, Daniel Sanchez and Max Gregor. Max might have to sit a year since he graduated high school when he was sixteen. He's eighteen now, but we've had to battle with the NCAA about him. That's bad in one way because you would like for the kid to get going, but in another way it will give him a chance to get a year of really good practice. George and Daniel are already high caliber players that are going to have a good chance to play a lot. The biggest thing with them is how high up can they play. And if they play, will they be able to handle the SEC.

"We are also trying to bring in one or two more players in mid-year. But that is going to be even harder because they won't be acclimated to Mississippi State, going to class, new teammates and new coaches. Then, boom, the first match of the year will be against Southern Cal who is top five in the country.

"We tell them what we expect and what it's like. When you go play Ole Miss they are going to be yelling at you. Sometimes guys come in and aren't used to it and get a little mad. I tell them wouldn't they rather play in front of that instead of a totally quiet crowd that might clap ever once in awhile? I think that's the greatest thing in the world because it means they care, it means their fans really care. I love going to those type places."

Have the freshmen been what you expected or have they been even better?
"So far, they have been better than we thought they would be. It's early, but just the way they look when they hit and how enthusiastic they are has been great."

I know the fall is different than the spring. What are you trying to do with your guys during the fall?
"I am going to try to get everybody into four tournaments during the fall. The biggest thing for (assistant coach) Matt (Hill) and me is to get them to understand that they are no longer playing an individual sport. They are playing a team sport when they come here.

"(In the past) they've been junior tennis players who can do almost anything they want to on the court. But when they come here we spend the fall telling them that their job is to try as hard as they can to make the other guys better. That's your job in the fall. Then, when we start in the spring it's not you against Ole Miss or Florida - it's us against those teams. We need all six spots to be like one."

So, you are not just trying to develop their talent, but develop their attitude as well.
"Some years we are spending 90% of our time working on them getting their energy up and 10% is spent on their game. But we want it where (the newcomers) leave it all out on the court and we (as coaches) are spending our time on how they are supposed to play."

What are you trying to teach your guys to do, mentally, when they are on the court?
"At every team meeting before we go out on the court, I tell them to make sure they have a plan.

"We've had a guy on our team who didn't know where he was going to hit the serve until the split second before he hit the ball. When you watch pro tennis on tv they have a plan where they are going to hit the ball before they step up to the line. We try to teach them that they should have their first two shots planned.

"We used to watch (tennis pro Andre) Agassi play on tv. Then in interviews he would explain that he knew the averages the whole way. He knew if he did this, then he was going to win six out of ten points. If he wins six out of ten points, then he is going to win the match. When you watched him do it, it was amazing.

"Then, when we asked our guys if they did that, they said no. And I know what that is like because I did the same thing when I was playing. I was just trying to hit the ball."

How do you teach them to have a plan?
"That is why the fall is so important. You want to be able to spend your time on that. When we are behind someone when they are playing their points, we might ask them if they know what they are trying to do. If they say I'm not really sure, we will offer suggestions, then do drills over and over later. But if they say I'm going to do this, then do this, then you know they are starting to think.

"We have one of the best hitters in the country on our team, but he has no idea on how to play a point. And he knows that. Now, he's so excited about learning it. That's what is so excited. You want to have someone who has that kind of potential who you can teach how to use it."

What are your objectives during the spring?
"The fall is like preseason. Matt and I can't wait for the spring because that is when the fun starts. The matches are unreal. In the SEC it's brutal but it's also great. The guys understand, after they have been here a year or two, the team aspect of it. They don't get that in the fall because it's individual matches in the fall. Once they get the team aspect of it, they love it and can't wait to get back to it."

What are your expectations for your team this year?
"We want to get back to where we were in the past. The tennis tradition here was we were top 10 in the country for ten straight years, and fighting for the SEC championship. We want to get back to that. Matt and I are so competitive we want to get back to that so fast, but we know we have to make the right decisions. We only have 4.5 scholarships. While it may look good on paper to sign this player or that player, it may hurt us down the road. So, what we are trying to do is get the right guys in here that we enjoy and know will be great as Bulldogs. But we also know we have to get talented players in here because the SEC is tough."

When you recruit you are obviously recruiting players that are as talented as possible, but are you also trying to recruit players who know how to plan a match?
"If they have talent and they know how to play, they are going to be some of the best players out there, and everybody is going to be recruiting them. I also look at their attitudes because it is hard to change someone's attitude. If someone is a prima donna it is hard to change them."

Earlier, you mentioned energy from the players and from the crowd. How important is energy in tennis?
"You can win a lot of matches by having more energy than the other team. In a college match the crowd is really important. Just that they are there helps, but when they are into it that is a key. If you come out to one of our matches you will notice that my guys are not quiet. Even if they are not playing a match, they had better be helping out."

How would you describe your philosophy as a tennis coach?
"My main philosophy is to get students here that graduate. That is why they are here. And tennis has always done well here, but we need to do better. They need to realize it's not enough just to try hard on the court. They need to try hard in both places. Once they get used to doing that, they really benefit from it.

"So, I guess you can say my philosophy is you are here to go to school and get a degree. And at the same time, Matt and I are going to do everything we can to make you the best possible tennis player that you can be. And we will run through a wall to do that. We love our guys and we both love coaching. We want it to be an experience of a lifetime. I remember my four years here and how much fun it was. I will never forget that, and I want them to have that same type experience."

Did you make any changes in the tennis program when you got here? And if you did, what were they?
"I did. There was a different philosophy here before. Before, it was more of a take care of your court - that was number one. I think that has been the biggest difference because I try to get them all involved. I think they should know what is going on on other courts without it distracting them from their own match. And I want it to be loud out there like a football or basketball game. I want it to be crazy. The guys play better and it's a lot more fun for the crowd when it's like that.

"We won the national championship doing it that way when I was at Pepperdine. We weren't the best team - Georgia was better than us - but we had such a great camaraderie where they fed off each other. When bad things were happening they overcame it by the guy next telling them not to worry about it. A lot of tennis teams don't do that because their players are only worried about their own match, not what is happening with the other matches. I like playing those type teams because I feel like we have a chance to beat them. There are only a few schools that kind of do the same thing. And it's a nightmare to play against them. They might not be that great in tennis, but how they get fired up and get their fans fired up makes it harder for you. And teams can do the same thing on the road. They can create that by playing like they are at home."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by email at

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