The No. 33-ranked collegiate tennis player in the country, Mate Cutura, delivered serve after serve on Mississippi State’s tennis courts as he waited for the rest of his teammates to arrive for practice. Behind him, second-year head coach Matt Roberts stood watching quietly with arms crossed over his T-shirt, peering out underneath the safari-style hat he wore either for protection from the sun or because he thought it looked cool. Both, probably.
Roberts was calm, relaxed, not overly demonstrative, not yelling. There was no strong language, no huffing or puffing. Just small corrections, encouragement and advisement.
“Perfect. Yes, sir, just like that,” Roberts observed.
“That was too flat,” he said before offering quick instructions on what to fix.
“There it is.”
When not working on serves – or playing soccer tennis before practice, flying around the world in the offseason or coaching in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments as he will in the coming weeks – Roberts invests his time in building MSU’s tennis program with the vision he’s had since taking over before the 2015 season.
Between 2015 and 2016, however, there was a not insignificant bump in the road. Two players from that first team, he knew, were not good fits with the culture Roberts wanted to create at MSU. When they transferred following the season, two more joined them, saying they wanted to go with their friends. Following those departures and after graduation took its yearly toll, Roberts was left with only two players in his entire program, junior Rishab Agarwal (No. 60 in the country currently) and the previously mentioned Cutura.
The team Roberts had taken to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as the head coach was almost completely gone. And for a coach trying to instill a new culture of accountability, competitiveness and comfort, it was the perfect opportunity, even if it was a bit unexpected.
“We saw it as a blessing,” Roberts said. “We saw it as we were lucky. We were grateful to have that. Some people might have seen it in a negative way around the athletic department. But Mate and Rishab were really positive. They said, ‘We trust in you guys. We know there’s good tennis here. We know you’re going to continue to bring good players in here. You’re going to continue to develop us.’ We just took it as a challenge and learned a lot from it.”
Then, the global recruiting travels began. Like a tennis-centric episode of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Roberts and assistant coach Tanner Stump were everywhere. Roberts went to Brazil via Skype for Lucas Sanchez, while flying to Serbia twice for Luka Sucevic and Strahinja Rakic.
Meanwhile, Stump was in Germany showing a powerpoint presentation on his iPad to Niclas Braun (who had offers to go pro) and his family, which was shortly before flying to Portugal to meet with and secure a commitment from Nuno Borges. Lastly, Vaughn Hunter and Trevor Foshey filled out the roster, both coming on visits to MSU and eventually signing on to play for Roberts and Stump. Finally, breathlessly, they had their team.
“Our practice shirts say family,” Roberts said. “We have it now and it’s unbelievable. It’s part of the reason why we’re doing well. We’ve got good character in here. We’ve got good talent. We’ve got guys who love tennis.”
The proof is on the court, as the Bulldogs are No. 23 in the country as they begin the postseason in the SEC Tournament on Friday. On a team with seven newcomers on a nine-man roster, six of them freshmen, MSU finished fourth in the exceedingly-difficult and competitive SEC. Cutura and Agarwal have steadily moved up the rankings, Braun has been named SEC Freshman of the Week twice and the Bulldogs have grown stronger and stronger as Roberts and Stump have taught and guided their team along.
The success has been both welcomed and expected for Roberts, a highly-competitive person by nature who recalls an interaction following the depletion of his roster after the 2015 season. When walking through the administrative building of MSU’s athletic department, one staffer stopped Roberts to congratulate him on a nice season and for making the NCAA Tournament. The staffer then remarked, “But boy, you’ve got a lot of people gone. How are you going to be next year?”
“I hope to be the same.” Roberts replied. “Or better.”
Roberts’ confidence was rewarded with a surprised and disbelieving look from the man who didn’t quite seem to understand what Roberts was planning to build.
“At the end of the season,” Roberts said this week, “I’m gonna go up there like, ‘Hey, what did I say?’ I don’t like to lose. I don’t like to be bad or average at anything.”
“He’s very competitive,” Braun confirmed when asked about his head coach. “I’m always feeling like he’s competing with us. He’s not just a coach. He’s playing with us. It’s not two coaches. It feels like two players competing with us.”
That competitive nature is one Roberts and Stump have instilled in their team, and they’ve done so relatively easily, recruiting players who fit the mold they wanted: high character and high talent.
The talent part is easy enough, but the character requires building. One of the cornerstones of MSU’s program is accountability, from both players and coaches. The mood before practice is light, fun and usually involves several rounds of 2-on-2 soccer tennis with a miniature soccer ball and half the court.
Once practice begins, however, the competitive streaks and the desires to be great shine through. They have to, really. If they don’t, the whole team is punished.
“If they make a bed decision in practice, a bad shot selection or stop supporting their teammates or lose their focus, we run four over and backs as a team,” Roberts explained. “It gets the guys accountable. Iron sharpens iron. It gets them on each other. And if Tanner and I don’t make them run, we’re not being accountable with them, just like they have to be accountable with each other.”
And because they’ve recruited the right guys, Roberts believes the style is bringing them together. It’s not just his word that has to be taken, though. His players believe it, too, and it’s that chemistry that they credit for the success they’ve had and the overwhelming improvement they’ve made since the season began.
“It’s fun,” Cutura said. “Obviously, it’s very hard. We work very hard every day trying to improve our game and everything off the court. But it’s really fun. As a team, we’re really competitive, as well as coaches. Everybody likes winning. When we work hard, it pays off. It shows on the court.
“It’s very important that we clicked right at the beginning of the season and everybody bought in and we all just worked really hard,” he continued. “When all the guys came here, right at the beginning, we felt like everybody wanted to work hard. Everybody wanted to improve in tennis. Even though they were freshmen, everybody seemed really mature. We never had any problems as far as communication or practicing. It was really easy to work hard and improve.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of MSU’s success this year is that any just watching the on-court results from the outside wouldn’t have even known Roberts was rebuilding, and they especially wouldn’t have known just how big of a rebuild it was. The steadiness speaks to his approach and the victories speak to the work the team has put in.
To say the future is bright would be quite true, but the present is pretty nice, too. Either way, Roberts and his Bulldogs won’t stop working any time soon.
“I’m constantly hungry, man. And that’s what you’ve got to be,” Roberts said. “You can’t really have any dips. You can’t be complacent. You can’t accept being normal. We want to be different in how we compete and how we train and let the results take care of themselves.”