The Magnolia state is in full bloom on the Southeastern Conference and national tennis scene.
Ole Miss’ men’s team charged through the regular season undefeated (11-0) and finished overall SEC co-champions. Rebel Johan Hede is the conference player of the year, while Ole Miss men’s coach Billy Chadwick is the coach of the year.
The only SEC team to beat the No. 2 nationally-ranked Rebels is in-state rival Mississippi State in the semifinals of the conference tournament last weekend. MSU defeated three of the nation’s top 12 teams in three days to win the SEC tourney.
“That is pretty much a clean sweep of the SEC for the state of Mississippi,” said Chadwick, a former Mississippi High School singles champion in 1970. “We and Mississippi State have kind of had an one-upsmanship the past couple of years. They make the national semifinals (1994) one year and then we make the national finals the next (1995). The toughest matches we may have are right here in our back yard.”
Competition is responsible for the success of both programs, Mississippi State men’s coach Andy Jackson said.
“We are No. 9 in the country right now,” he said. “Who would have ever thought that wouldn’t be good enough?”
All that is left for State or Ole Miss, which will both have automatic bids to the NCAA Championship Finals May 18-21 in Athens, Ga., is to win an NCAA title. Could there be an all-Mississippi national final in the future?
“It could be possible some year,” said Jackson, whose team is one of four men’s teams to finish ranked in the top 10 each of the last four seasons. “Playing Ole Miss is always intense. I can’t imagine what it would be like in that situation.”
The men are not the only ones serving up aces. Ole Miss’ women’s tennis team is ranked 12th in the country and plays in the NCAA Women’s regional beginning Friday. Mississippi State’s Marilia Andrade is ranked No. 52 and has won six of her last eight matches, with five of those wins coming against ranked players.
“We have just done it one phone call at a time,” says Ole Miss women’s tennis coach Jerry Montgomery, as his office phone rings in the back ground. “We have good weather, good facilities and good people, which makes it easy to sell recruits on our program.”
Recruits like Ole Miss’ Marie-Laure Bougnol of Marseille, France, who made it to the NCAA finals in doubles last year, become sold on some good old southern charm.
“I have loved it,” Bougnol said. “Everyone on the team is so close, and coach Montgomery is great.”
Bougnol and others are winning as much off the court as on. She and Hede were Academic All-SEC performers at Ole Miss last year. Mississippi State’s Kristian Broems of Sweden is the school’s best academic male athlete with a 3.96 grade point average.
“It is tough trying to think in English, but everything has been so much better than I ever imagined it could be here,” Broems said.
While star foreign recruits have helped push Mississippi’s schools into elite circles, Chadwick points to Tupelo’s Dave Randall as the beginning for Ole Miss. Randall, a two-time All-SEC and All-America selection, is now playing professionally.
“This hasn’t been overnight,” said Chadwick, the winningest coach in Rebel tennis history. “We didn’t have a blueprint to work off of, but we learned something every year.”
Fans at both schools are noticing.
“It use to be strictly girlfriends and parents, but we have had some crowds of 200 people this season,” said Rebel Ali Hamadeh, a Memphis native who was half of the NCAA Doubles championship team last year.
State has over 150 tennis boosters including MSU basketball coach Richard Williams. The coach of Mississippi’s first team to ever reach basketball’s Final Four attends as many matches as his schedule allows.
“To have such a famous person out at our matches really means a lot to the players,” Jackson said. “Once we get people out they usually come back.”