About eight years ago, Matt Walters was a rising star on Arkansas’s men’s tennis team. Over Christmas break, he and his doubles partner were at a local athletic club just hitting around. Nothing serious, just enough to not get rusty during the time off.
Then Matt Roberts showed up. A former Arkansas star and team captain himself, Roberts was playing pro tournaments at the time, and he was helping out as an occasional volunteer coach for the Razorbacks when he was home between tournaments.
The two students had no intentions of a serious practice, but the pro walking in was incapable of anything but that.
“We didn’t know he was coming,” Walters said. “He walked in and was like, ‘Let’s train.’ We thought oh, crap. We didn’t really want to, but that’s his personality. If you’re going to be on the court, you’re going to go 110 percent and you’re going to have a purpose.”
“I came in pretty cocky,” Roberts admits now. “like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this drill.’ I didn’t know at the time I was going to be a coach, but I guess I had it in my blood.”
Over the years, the two Matts went their own directions, following the career paths that felt right to them. While their time around each other dropped, tennis stayed central to what each of them did on a daily basis.
Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and Mississippi State fans will know that Roberts had gotten into coaching not long after his encounter with Walters in Arkansas and had gone on to become the head coach at MSU after several successful years a college assistant. Roberts is now prepared to take his team to an NCAA Tournament for the third time in his three seasons as head coach, accruing the second-best all-time winning percentage (.696) in MSU history over that span.
Walters, on the other hand, had turned toward one-on-one coaching, a fitting role based on the way he likes to develop relationships. By last summer, he was at IMG Academy as the personal coach of the No. 1 junior in the world.
The two Matts, the two Arkansas natives and former Razorback stars, were doing pretty well for themselves in their own tracks of life. Whatever story might be told about them, it seemed the majority of it had already been written. The pair were still friends, but the years old story of Roberts’ first experience coaching had already happened. A decade-plus memory of middle school-aged Walters being inspired by Roberts’ success seemingly remained the only anecdote left unshared.
“When I was 12 I was still contemplating whether to play competitive tennis,” Walters said. “When [Roberts] went to Arkansas and developed success, that’s when I chose tennis and saw that a guy from Arkansas could have success. To see that kind of pushed me.”
After all, the two had grown up in the same town, and they even share the same youth coach, a Swedish tennis legend by the name of Thomas Andersson. It only made sense Walters should take some inspiration and direction from the elder Roberts.
But then, last summer, Roberts’ assistant coach at MSU got a job offer he couldn’t turn down. Tanner Stump had been the one man Roberts trusted to help him when he first became MSU’s head coach, the first head coaching gig of his career. How could Roberts replace him? During Stump’s final days, a familiar name came up.
“Tanner leaves,” Roberts recalled, “and I’m wondering, man, who am I going to get as an assistant coach? I started calling around and figuring out who was out there. One day, I’m sitting there thinking about Matt Walters, because he had been at a lot of these ITF Tournaments and I saw him in Mexico. Literally as I think about Matt, Tanner is in the other office and says, ‘Hey, have you called Matt Walters?’”
And so the timelines of the two Matts crossed again, starting a new chapter in Starkville, Mississippi. Not to say it was easy for Roberts to get Walters to Starkville, of course. Walters had turned down several collegiate coaching opportunities, as he was quite happy working one-on-one and traveling the world with his star pupil.
But once again, it seemed Roberts was able to convince Walters of his own convictions.
“It wasn’t a pitch,” Roberts said of their first phone conversation, “as much as just telling him, this is what we do. And we saw eye-to-eye on developing great young men to where they feel confident about anything they do in life. Tennis is a tool they use to grow as men. To focus on that, to focus on their development for professional tennis, and then focus on a team that’s structured in accountability and being brothers, really trying to create a tightknit group of guys with no selfishness.”
“It felt right,” Walters recalled of the discussion. “I flew to Starkville a week later, and I knew it was the right thing to do. It was the right time. It wasn’t easy for me, because the guy I was coaching was like a son to me … I knew, if I was going to go, it had to be right. It had to be something like this with something special.”
And to this point, special has indeed been the right word. The Bulldogs have soared up the rankings as the year has gone along. Now up to No. 17 in the country, MSU finished the regular season 17-7 in year one of The Matts, including seemingly weekly wins over ranked teams and regular upsets of some of the SEC’s top squads. Navigating one of America’s toughest schedules, MSU reeled off seven wins over ranked teams throughout the course of the season. State’s roster features the No. 4 ranked singles player in the country in Nuno Borges, and top-to-bottom the Bulldogs have some of the best doubles play in the country.
And to see the two Matts in practice, it’s obvious why the dynamic has been so successful. They have enough in common – competitive fire, a passion for teaching and developing – to mesh perfectly as a team and enough differences – approach, temperament and life experiences – to each have something new to offer to every young man under their care and guidance.
And they certainly learn from each other, too. Like it was so many years ago, Roberts has something to offer Walters as his career develops.
“I hope he leaves here with the full package and can be a great head coach,” Roberts said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I think he’s one of the best assistants coaches in the country on the court. I told him that the other day. He has a presence. He’s very positive. He inspires the guys.”
Meanwhile, Walters brings an entirely new set of experiences, as evidenced in one recent practice when rain forced the team indoors. At the end, Roberts was trying to think of a more creative cardio drill to end the day’s work. Perhaps something fun. He asked Walters if he had any ideas. A few minutes later, the entire roster was racing relay style in down-and-backs across two courts that were half two-footed jumps and half full-out sprints, laughing and breathing heavily the whole way through.
“I think we balance each other very well,” Walters said.
As the team dispersed, short conversations took place between individual coaches and individual players. Some were quick reminders, others were pointed recommendations. If there were any admonishments doled out, it was tough to tell by the encouraging and encouraged smiles on each face involved.
Who’d have guessed nearly two decades ago that two Matts from the same town in Arkansas would be working together to bring Mississippi State to the top of the collegiate tennis world?