Mississippi State junior Artem Ilyushin is ranked No. 84 in the country. Photo by: Photo Courtesy of MSU Athletics
March 19, 2011 11:08:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Artem Ilyushin hasn''t always been the most level-headed, even-keeled player.
His temperament hindered his ability to respond to adversity the right way, which held back his game and ultimately kept the Mississippi State men''s tennis team from reaching its full potential.
Lately, Ilyushin''s ability to channel his emotions and his improved service game have been major assets in MSU''s current run.
Ilyushin''s ascension to the No. 1 singles role, where he has played the past two matches, is evidence he has taken his game to another level.
The junior is coming off a 6-2, 6-4 win against LSU''s Neal Snupskis on March 13, his first No. 1 singles win against a Southeastern Conference opponent. The win helped MSU to a 5-2 win and earned it a weekend sweep.
"It was a great weekend," Ilyushin said. "I really felt like coaches put me at one because they really thought I could win. My first match against (Arkansas'' Chris) Nott, I almost won. I bounced back after that quick and decided to do really well against LSU. It was my first win in SEC at No. 1, and I was really excited."
A 7-0 victory against the University of South Carolina ran the winning streak to three and helped MSU improve to 8-5 and 4-1 in the SEC. It is the first time MSU has won three league matches in a row since 2007.
Ilyushin and Zach White improved to 3-0 in conference action with their won third-straight, an 8-2 victory against Johannes Pulsfort and Chris Sheehan.
Ilyushin, who is ranked No. 84 in the country, earned his 45th career victory as a Bulldog by defeating Kostanov 6-2, 6-3 on court two.
Ilyushin played in two No. 1 singles matches last season, splitting time between No. 2 and No. 3 with friend and doubles partner George Coupland. His talent was evident, as he finished with a team-best 12-9 singles record.
But MSU won just three league matches last season, and Ilyushin knew the holes in his game would have to be filled if he hoped to qualify for the NCAA tournament. He started with the emotional aspect of his game, which involved keeping cool when shots didn''t drop or when he trailed.
Most important, Ilyushin needed to handle the pressure of facing a team''s top player each weekend.
His first dip into No. 1 singles this season ended with a 6-4, 6-1 loss to Baylor''s John Peers. Following the match, Ilyushin said he lost faith he could perform at No. 1 singles. After talking with coach Per Nilsson, Ilyushin went into his next match against Arkansas -- a hard-fought three-set loss -- with more confidence.
"He told me I have the game, but it''s about how much I want it and how much I want to win," Ilyushin said. "How much effort do I want to put in it? This weekend, I started trusting myself and realized I could get that little extra when it matters. Anybody can hit the ball at this level; It''s all a matter of how tough you can be and make the right choices in important situations.
"I lost so many matches trying to figure out the balance. Now I finally feel I can make all the right decisions on the court."
Getting Ilyushin to play with the swagger and confidence of a top-flight player, even after making the NCAA Championships in doubles last season, is still a work in progress, Nilsson said.
"When he first came here, he was very mentally unstable," Nilsson recalled. "Some of that shows up here and there, but he''s gotten a lot stronger. The key will be can he go to that when he''s struggling? He wasn''t able to do that during the Friday match (against Arkansas), but in the Sunday match he was. Compared to previous years, he''s improved a lot and is becoming one of the better ones on our team at being able to do it.
"It''s not so much a battle anymore, but more like a constant back-and-forth talk with him about where we feel like he is and where he can improve during the match."
Ilyushin has moved up eight spots in the rankings since March 1.
Coupland, who has played nine matches at No. 1 this season, played last weekend at No. 2. He won a three-set match at No. 1 on Saturday. However, there''s no jealousy or bad blood between the two players, Ilyushin said.
For personal growth and as competitors, they both want the top spot and to show Nilsson they can compete with the best. But they realize they''re interchangeable, Ilyushin said. In fact, Ilyushin needed to pattern some of his game after Coupland''s to compete at No. 1.
At 5-foot-7, Ilyushin is the shortest player on the team, and shorter than most lead singles players in the SEC. He possesses power for a player his size, but his strength hasn''t always showed in his serve.
Instead of just trying to put the ball in, Ilyushin realized he could hurt people with his serve.
"He''s serving better this year," Nilsson said. "It wasn''t a weapon last year, so he''s been going after it. The last two weeks, it''s helped him more than before and he''s going to continue to work on that. You''ve got to have a serve in men''s tennis if you want to be successful. You can''t control the game without a good serve."
Nilsson, who is in his fourth year, believes he has multiple players who can earn living on the court, but admits Ilyushin''s baseline oriented style translates well to the pro circuit, even thought he is 5-7.
"He has a lot of power," Nilsson said, "and he''s an aggressive baseliner, which almost all the guys are. There are a few counter-punchers, but not many. Artem has to hit a better serve, better returns, and has to play better at the net, but I feel like he has a chance to be a pro."