MSU Head Men's Tennis Coach Per Nilsson

Mississippi State head men's tennis coach Per Nilsson talks about the future, short and long-term, of the men's tennis program as well as recruiting.

When you are recruiting, what are some of the first things you look for in a tennis player?
"There are so many players who can hit well, so when you go to a junior tournament you look at the effort that they are putting forth. You look at their intensity and how much they like to fight. College tennis is a lot about effort and how intense you are. So, you look for that at first. The second thing you look at is probably their serve. They can become a real weapon if they have a good serve. But that can also be a huge weakness as well because the serve is the most important shot in tennis. If someone already has a really good serve that is a huge plus."

What are you looking for in a serve?
"You see the motion right away. You can see if they have a smooth motion on their serve right away. My serve was my best shot when I played. And I thought it was the easiest shot because it is the only shot that you are in total control of. All the other shots you are having to deal with your opponent. But the serve you are in control of. So you would think it is the easiest one and everybody should have a decent serve. But today you see a lot of players with serves that are messed up. And if they learn how to serve the wrong way at the beginning it's very hard to change it. And when we get them at 18-years-old it's almost impossible to change their serve motion."

Velocity-wise, what would you want your guys to serve?
"I would like our guys to be above 125 on their first serve. The top guys you see in the pros, the best servers are up to 135 to 140 and they can get the ball to land within a couple of inches of the line. When you get those kind of serves in, it's tough to hit them back."

What do you look for a guy to make with his first serve, percentage-wise?
"You want the kid to get free points. Free points means he can rely on his serve to get out of trouble, get a serve in that the guy misses. If you don't get any free points on your serve you are having to battle so hard for every point. It's too hard to beat guys if they get aces or they hit a good enough serve that you can't get and you don't also get the serves. So, you would like to get 60 to 65% of your first serves in. Anything higher than that and you are serving pretty well."

After the effort and serve, what are you looking for?
"You look to see if they actually know how to play. A lot of kids grow up just hitting the ball and they don't really think about how to set the points up. It's about how to play the sport of tennis. You may have one guy once in a while who has an unbelievable serve and all he has to do is crank it and get it in. But now the players and the rackets have become so good if they hit the serve back you have to know what to do. You can't just hit the ball."

How and where do you recruit players?
"The internet is great. The best juniors in the world, American and foreign, play the same tournaments as the pros except on a junior level. You know where the tournaments are because they are all online. You look them up and decide which ones to go to. We are going to Kalamazoo in August, which is the biggest junior tournament in America."

How many scholarships do you have available?

You have nine players on your squad, so there must be academic scholarships as well?
"Yeah, they can get a little bit of academics. I have a really smart team. We had the highest gpa of any team on campus this year. It helps when you can sign someone who can get some academic help. That is huge for us when you find a kid that is really good and you are competing against Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M."

There are probably a lot of selling points when it comes to recruiting but you were fifth in the nation in attendance this past season. That has to be huge for you.
"Yeah, we were 5th in the nation in attendance. You tell the kid that there are a lot of people who come to our matches. That is a huge selling point for us."

And it wasn't just big crowds but loud crowds.
"It's supposed to be loud. It's not pro tennis. You want it loud. The fans get into it, the players enjoy it."

Switching over to your current team, do you feel like you have the guys on your squad now that will allow you to be as successful as you want to be in the future?
"We are close. It took two years to where we felt happy with our roster. Now we at least feel like we should do some damage. Barring no injuries, we have the potential to compete. Before, I felt like we were short and didn't have enough depth. We had a bad injury this past year (to Daniel Sanchez) that really hurt us."

Weren't two of you better guys guys you had to redshirt? Why did you have to redshirt them?
"We had two guys that had to redshirt due to academics. Basically, they were too smart to be eligible. They graduated early. But their parents and the players didn't feel that they were ready for college at 16, so they didn't come to college right away. Due to that they were penalized. But they are on the roster now and eligible."

Who are they and why do you say they were too smart?
"Max Gregor Smith was so smart in school he was doubling up on his classes which allowed him to graduate early. He finished at 16-years-old and didn't feel like he was ready for college. The NCAA would have given him one year to wait to go to college but not two years. George Coupland decided after a year in high school he wanted to go into a different field. He had good grades, but he wound up taking an extra year of high school. But doing that caused him to deviate from his graduation and he was penalized for that."

How good are those two guys?
"George could have played (the number) one (position) for us this year. With Max, we are excited to see where he will fit in. Neither of these kids played in tournaments last year because they had to sit a year but they are playing a lot this summer. They will be here in the fall so we can send them to all of our tournaments and they can get used to it."

Do you feel both of those guys could be competitive in the NCAA postseason tournament as freshmen?
"George could definitely play in the NCAA. He a big-time player. He is 6-6. He has a good serve but it's not as good as it should be for his size. He should have a huge serve. His serve is good but not huge. We brought the radar gun out and his serve was 116 (miles per hour). I serve 120 and I'm 37-years-old. So that was an eye-opener for him for him."

How will you increase George's serve velocity?
"It's not really a motion issue. He can hit it. If you make him hit it as hard as he can he can serve at 120 to 125. But when he hits what he thinks is his hardest it's just not quite there. We can do different drills to get him stronger and get his racket speed faster. He was doing that all spring. If there was anything about him not playing, it was that he had a lot of time to work on his game, especially his serve. He's just never really put the necessary effort in his serve. If you want to hit a tennis ball faster than most people in the world you have to put forth the effort. We have worked with him on his effort."

How much do you feel you can increase his velocity?
"With some players you can get 10 to 15 miles per hour more as long as it's not some big mechanical issue. George's is due to upper strength and effort. And he can easily put 10 to 15 pounds of muscle on his upper body."

Without the big serve you still said George could have played the number one position for you. Obviously other parts of his game are really good.
"The rest of his game is as good as anyone. If his serve was as good as the rest of his game he wouldn't be in college. He would be pro. But because of his serve he is not ready for the pros. But the rest of his game is really good. He has great ground strokes. He has good volleys. For a big guy he moves well. And he's a really good doubles player, something that hurt us last year."

You mentioned George and Max, both of whom will be redshirt freshmen next year. Are there other young guys on your team who you feel can be really good?
"We signed Artem Ilyushin from Granite Bay, California, the third best player in America, in January. We beat out a lot of the top schools in America for him such as Texas A&M (visited), Virginia (visited), Texas (visited) and Georgia (visited) was in there. He came in as a 17-year-old and only turned 18 in May. He played number 2 for us and earned a ranking. If he had one or two more wins he would have made the NCAA tournament."

What is so good about him?
"He is a 17-year-old pro. The way he goes about his game is great. He is a great kid, a hard work, a guy who goes extra on everything. He puts forth more effort than anyone. We would be on a bus from a trip and he would pull out his computer and say, 'coach, we have been working 70% of my serve, 20% of my ground strokes and only 5% of my volleys. We need to work on that.' He's unbelievable."

Who are some of the other young guys on your team?
"We had another kid come in in January, (freshman) Louis Cant. The indoor SEC tournament in January was his first tournament and he defeated three ranked players right off the bat. I think his expectations were so high after that first tournament, then he hurt his back and struggled a little bit. He basically played hurt the last month and a half. I just didn't have enough players because we were so short-handed with Max and George having to sit (their freshman years). And my number 2 player, (freshman) Daniel Sanchez, had knee surgery.

"Louis and Artem will be the faces of our team for the next three years. I don't see Artem playing any lower than number 1 or number 2. Louis will start off at 4 or 5 and work his way up. He doesn't have the same weapons as Artem quite yet.

"I also have another kid coming in in August, Hrehan Hakeem, an Australian. He is a bigger kid, 6-2."

What do you like about Hrehan?
"He is a super nice kid. And we knew he could fit in right away. He's been successful in juniors. And I had an Australian kid who played for me at Pepperdine who knew him and told me that if I could get him I should get him. And we were able to sign him."

Who else recruited Hrehan?
"He was a little bit of a dark horse. But Wake Forest recruited him a little bit. And Louisville recruited him. Both of those schools are top-25 schools. With him, we did a really good job of finding him early. And once you get in there first you build a relationship."

What schools recruited George Coupland and Louis Cant?
"With George we beat out Tennessee and TCU. Louis was a little bit under the radar but he was looking at some northern schools such as Michigan and Penn State."

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

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