By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – The biggest adjustment for Malte Stropp wasn’t being a freshman in the SEC, far away from his home of Dusseldorf, Germany. It was more elemental than that.
The Mississippi State tennis player played only on clay and carpet surfaces in Germany. In the SEC, the surface is the less forgiving hard court.
Despite that, Stropp has excelled and is a big reason No. 21 MSU (12-7, 7-3 SEC) enters today’s 1 p.m. match against Ole Miss (11-7, 5-5) as Western Division champ – the first West title for State since the league split into divisions in 2002.
Stropp has won nine consecutive matches and is 22-5 on the season, the best winning percentage on the team. He’s been named SEC freshman of the week twice.
“I’m actually kind of surprised that I’m playing my best tennis right now,” he said.
Stropp has come to like the harder surface, and he credits head coach Per Nilsson and assistant Matt Hill with helping him tweak his approach.
“Back in Germany I’m kind of known as a grinder, just putting balls in and don’t want to miss,” Stropp said. “Here with Per and Matt, we worked a lot on my serve and my forehand so I can dictate the points.”
The course of this season for MSU has been largely dictated by the play of youngsters like Stropp, freshman Zach White and sophomore James Chaudry. That’s come at the expense of some older players, like junior Louis Cant. The Bulldogs’ No. 1 singles player last season, Cant is now playing at No. 5.
That took some adjusting, but he said he has no problem with it.
“We have all six guys on our team are really good,” Cant said. “We can play everywhere in the lineup. It doesn’t actually matter where we play, because every win is important.”
He’s excelled in that spot, sporting a 19-6 record and, like Stropp, is on a nine-match winning streak. Nilsson said more than one coach has told him that Cant is the best No. 5 player in the country, and that’s a testament to the balance of his lineup, a balance State hasn’t had in years.
MSU has won seven of its last nine contests, the two losses coming to Florida and Georgia, both top-20 teams.
“For the first time we have a spot all the way through where we can win,” said Nilsson, who’s in his third year. “We didn’t have that before.”
Taking care of Ole Miss would give MSU a No. 4 seed and a first-round bye for next week’s SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs are playing the kind of tennis the Rebels have been known for.
“When I came here, that was one of our goals,” Nilsson said, “to get back on track and top them.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.