April 12, 2018 10:57:36 AM
STARKVILLE -- It's not that the Mississippi State men's tennis team had significant problems as the calendar turned from January to February -- it was ranked No. 15 in the nation at that point and had won four of its five spring matches. Still, in that run, coach Matt Roberts knew something could be better, so he took a risk.
He more or less shuffled his entire doubles lineup. Since then, MSU is 12-0 and has climbed to No. 7 in the nation.
That run has No. 7 MSU (16-1, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) poised to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and playing in a 6 p.m. Friday match at No. 5 Texas A&M that is essentially for the SEC regular season championship. It was quite the risk for Roberts to make: he was splitting up Niclas Braun and Trevor Foshey, who were good enough last year to qualify as individuals for the NCAA Doubles Tournament and advance to the second round.
"You're putting a guy from 1 to 3 who's probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament now, who made the tournament last year in doubles," Roberts said of Foshey. "He's willing to do it because he's doing it for the team. That's tough for that guy."
In the new configuration, MSU has had Nuno Borges and Strahinja Rakic in its No. 1 slot, a duo that currently ranks 42nd in the nation, with Giovanni Oradini joining Braun in the second slot and Florian Broska with with Foshey in third. In doubles play, each team puts three pairs against three pairs from the opponent and they play for one point; whichever team wins two out of three doubles matches win the point, giving that team an advantage going into singles play.
MSU has gotten plenty of winning in its new doubles format: Borges and Rakic are 9-4 together, Braun and Oradini 11-0 and Broska and Foshey 6-3. MSU has won the doubles point in seven of its last eight matches.
Roberts is one that believes in leadership on doubles teams, and that was one reason for the change. The changes paired juniors with underclassmen, junior Braun with sophomore Oradini and junior Foshey with freshman Broska. Then there were the unexpected benefits.
"I just didn't expect Giovanni and Nik to be this good," Roberts said. "They could probably play 1 for us and succeed at 1."
In their short time together, Braun and Oradini have climbed to No. 44 in the nation, just two spots behind MSU's No. 1 pair. An undefeated streak of that length -- second-longest in program history -- is rooted in their past.
"We started off last fall and had a pretty good run at first," Braun said. "We got back together and kind of picked up where we left off."
Oradini added, "For sure he's more the doubles player than I am, but I feel like the way I can play I can set him up pretty good and he does the rest. We'd been playing doubles together at the beginning of the semester and we've practiced with each other, so it was easy to combine."
In the duo, Roberts sees an excellent baseline player in Oradini complemented by a strong net player in Braun. Roberts added Foshey is, "really smart on the court," thus sees things so the talented freshman Broska can know what to expect.
The combination of it all has MSU poised to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, a right awarded to the top 16 teams in the nation, a status MSU is almost certain to get barring an epic collapse in the final weeks. Roberts sees a team that has reacted well to a change and rode the momentum it generated to playing its best tennis at the right time.
"The guys are controlling the things they can control and they're doing it more maturely each week, and that's what it's all about," Roberts said. "When the moments get harder and harder, they deal with more and more adversity, they're a lot more stable through that. Their self-talk, their self-confidence can get them through those ups-and-downs.
"I think we're definitely peaking because we're more in control of that."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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