OXFORD, Miss. — The 39th-ranked Razorback men’s tennis team goes on the road for the final time this regular season this weekend as it will travel to Ole Miss and Mississippi State on Friday and Sunday respectively. Both the Rebels and Bulldogs are ranked in the top-20 this week as they will be the 12th and 13th ranked opponents that Arkansas has faced this season.
The Razorbacks are currently 14-7 on the year and 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play, but have benefited from a tough schedule and some key non-conference wins to keep a top-40 ranking in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings. The No. 32 ranking the team achieved last week was its highest ranking since the 2008 season.
Last week, the Razorbacks were victims of losses to Georgia and Tennessee, both top-25 teams, but the Hogs did get some very nice performances from their top doubles teams as well as their top singles player in Nikolas Zogaj.
Over the last two weeks, Zogaj has held the No. 120 ranking in singles, but was able to raise that ranking this week to No. 108 this week as he earned his fourth conference victory of the year and also his third ranked win of the season. The senior defeated 51st-ranked Mikelis Libietis of Tennessee, 6-3, 1-6, 6-6, ret. to continue his great start to the SEC season. Arkansas head coach Robert Cox said this type of performance is nothing out of the ordinary as he expects it from a senior like Zogaj.
“Nikolas truly has grown as a player since he came here,” Cox said. “We don’t have any superstars on this team, but Nikolas is growing into one. He’s doing it on the court and earning his reputation as a Top-100 singles player in the country. Nikolas has worked hard, he’s determined and he’s a good leader. He’s a good captain and he’s earned it.”
Along with his conference wins, Zogaj has piled up the wins all season long as he leads the team with 16 total wins, nine of which have come in dual matches. Zogaj actually started the season at the No. 3 position, but has worked his way up after winning seven out of 11 matches between the No. 2 and No. 3 position. At the top singles spot, Zogaj is 2-3 on the season and is tied for the team lead with sophomore Manfred Jeske with three ranked wins.
In doubles, Arkansas has gotten an equally strong performance all season long from junior Hall Fess and senior Matt Walters, who form the top doubles team for the Hogs. Over the weekend, the duo garnered their 19th win of the year after dispatching the 7th-ranked team of Libietis and Hunter Reese from Tennessee, 8-6. It was Fess and Walters’ second ranked win in as many weeks and vaulted them into the ITA doubles rankings for the first time this year. The team will enter this weekend’s matches as the No. 48 team and will also be going for its 20th win of the year.
“What else can you say about the two Arkansans,” Cox said. “With Hall Fess being a true walk-on a couple of years ago and Matt Walters growing up in Jonesboro, Ark. When the rankings do come out, they’re going to be a Top-50 team. They’ve been playing solid tennis and they play with a lot of enthusiasm. Matt Walters is our cheerleader on the team, he kind of puts these guys on his back. We’re playing good doubles with those guys at the top of the lineup. We’re at the point where we can win any doubles point against anyone. I’m really pleased with those guys and they should be recognized.”
The first match on the slate this weekend for the Razorbacks will be against the Ole Miss Rebels. Ole Miss is currently No. 14 in the country and 8-5 on the year. It comes into Friday’s match holding down second place in the SEC Western Division behind Mississippi State as it is 4-2 in conference play and one match behind the Bulldogs from Starkville, Miss.
Ole Miss is led by freshman Nik Scholtz at the top of the lineup. Scholtz is No. 19 in the singles rankings this week and is 14-2 overall on the year and 5-1 in conference play. The Rebels also have a second ranked player in senior Marcel Thiemann, who is No. 36. He also owns a 5-1 record in conference play at the No. 2 spot.
Mississippi State comes into Friday’s match with LSU with a 14-4 record and 5-1 conference record. The Bulldogs are enjoying a No. 10 national ranking and are fresh off a sweep of Florida and South Carolina last week.
A senior threesome leads the charge for MSU including 15th-ranked Artem Ilyushin, No. 44 Louis Cant and 46th-ranked George Coupland. Ilyushin is now a perfect 6-0 in SEC play, while winning nine out of his last 10 matches, eight of which have come against ranked opponents.
Cant and Coupland have also posted impressive results this season with Cant posting a 14-2 slate thus far while going 4-2 in conference play. Coupland has compiled a similar record at 14-3 while posting a 4-2 record in SEC action as well.
“Both teams are tough and awfully tough at home,” Cox said. “We’re going to have to give it our best shot and have things go just right. Our confidence will be there and our enthusiasm will be there. We just have to put it all together. Hopefully, some of these close sets will go our way and we can sneak up on Ole Miss and Mississippi State and come out with a couple of victories.”
Friday’s match with Ole Miss is start to start at 2 p.m. in Oxford, Miss., while Sunday’s match with Mississippi State is slated for a 1 p.m. start in Starkville, Miss. A full match recap with complete results will be posted online following each day’s play.