Nuno Borges, excluding his Portuguese accent, blends in naturally around campus and appears no different than any other sophomore at Mississippi State. He’s shy, humble, respectful and goes about his business quietly, racking up A’s in just about every class he takes – the only two B’s he had as a freshman were, unsurprisingly, public speaking and English Comp I.
He’s on MSU’s tennis team, too, but to see him hanging out at practice, one might assume he was a manager or just a random fan who enjoys the sport. He doesn’t look like one of the best players in the country. At least not until he starts playing.
“He’s the most relaxed, nice guy,” MSU head coach Matt Roberts said. “You watch him walk or jog and you think, this guy can’t be No. 3 in the country, he’s not even that athletic. But you see him hold that racquet. You see him start moving on the court and he glides, he’s so smooth. It’s unbelievable. He was born to play tennis and born to compete.”
On-court Nuno and off-court Nuno are very different people. In fact, on-court Nuno is so different that it nearly scared Roberts off the first time he watched Borges play in a European Championship event in Switzerland two years ago. The laid-back kid he’d met previously on an in-home visit was nothing like the ball of emotion and competitiveness he was watching on the court, and when the match against one of Spain’s top players turned south, Borges reaction was a bit more intense than even Roberts thought necessary.
“He was so emotional on the court, to the point where I didn’t know if he was a Bulldog or not,” Roberts remembered. “But we kept recruiting him and eventually he committed. He comes in and he’s the nicest guy. He’s a team guy. He’s so humble.”
And in addition to being humble, he’s really good. Not just at being nice, but at playing tennis. Borges committed to MSU as one of the top 40 junior players in the world, having been recruited by nearly everyone in America, and in a short period of time he’s already established himself as one of the all-time greats in the history of MSU tennis.
Last week, Borges was named the SEC Player of the Year, just the third Bulldog to ever win the award, and the youngest to have done so, earning the honor in only his second season. He deserved it, too, having risen to No. 3 in the nation’s singles rankings, winning more matches at No. 1 singles than anyone else in the conference (19-3 at No. 1), winning more ranked matches than anyone in the conference (21, including four over Top-10 foes) and racking up a total of 31 overall victories this spring.
Meanwhile, off the court, he’s a lanky sophomore who deflects praise, gets random nose bleeds (including one during the interview for this story) and cares about little more than seeing his team succeed. He didn’t even know he was the youngest to win Player of the Year until it was mentioned in a question. He was more worried about helping his team get ready the NCAA Championships this weekend.
“All my success is due to all of our teamwork,” he said. “We’ve been doing pretty great as a team. It’s not just me. They’re a big part of what I’ve become.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Roberts.
“It doesn’t matter if you play 1 or 8 on our team, you have a role,” the head coach explained. “Yeah, it’s great that we have a player on our team who’s No. 1 and is winning a lot for us, but he’s no different than anyone else. We’re all Bulldogs. We’re all having an impact on this team.”
But that’s not to take away from the season, or for that matter, the career that Borges is in the middle of. As the sophomore put it in his own words, “There’s no secret. It’s just working hard.” And beyond technical development, one of the things Roberts and assistant coach Matt Walters have worked with Borges on is shaping and molding the competitive fire he has so naturally.
The goal is to help him focus his passion and energies in a mature and productive way. It’s a goal that has quickly been reached, thanks to an offseason and fall slate of putting Borges in the right situations to face adversity and learn how to handle it.
An example of his court presence and comfort under fire came recently when the Bulldogs made a run to the championship match of the SEC Tournament a couple weeks ago. Over the course of the weekend, Borges found himself in a tough match against one of the league’s top players as he was pitted against South Carolina’s No. 1 singles player.
Borges lost the first set, then won the second. With everything on the line in the upcoming final set, Borges’ opponent took an injury timeout and went to a bathroom to recuperate before the third set began. Meanwhile, Borges was pacing the court with a near-manic fervor, talking to himself and pumping himself up while Roberts and the team trainer looked on in awe.
“He starts saying,” Roberts remembered, “’It doesn’t matter what this guy is gonna do, there’s no way he can come back and beat me.’ We’re just sitting there like, this is amazing.”
Sure enough, Borges won the final set with relative ease.
“It’s moments that like,” Roberts said, “where Nuno gets that look on his face and you think, man, he could take out Nadal right now. If he makes that decision to be tough and be a machine, no one can beat him.”
With so many wins on the court and A’s in the classroom – Borges actually won the Newsom Award this year, an annual MSU honor given to student-athletes who exhibit success in both sports and education – the future may be even more fun to watch than the present. But for Roberts and those with MSU tennis, it’s easy to just enjoy what’s happening now.