A winning tradition takes root in Ole Miss tennis program

Posted on Mar 20 2017 - 8:01am by Sam Harres
The Ole Miss men's tennis team huddles around before the start of their match against University of Arkansas - Pine Bluff. (Photo by: Wilson Benton)

The Ole Miss men’s tennis team huddles around before the start of their match against University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff. (Photo by: Wilson Benton)

Just beyond the trees lining Magnolia Drive, in the sun but out of the spotlight, the Rebels have quietly assembled a tennis dynasty.

Ole Miss tennis, for much of the early 1900s, was seen largely as a club sport, but J.W. “Wobble” Davidson, named head coach in 1949, brought legitimacy and stability to a program destined for success. Since then, 77 All-SEC picks and 29 All-Americans have called Oxford home. With 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, the Rebels boast a tennis prestige few in the nation can match.

Yet, at Ole Miss, a true SEC school in the heart of the South, that success has failed to translate into mainstream notoriety. For a school dominated by football and baseball, tennis often feels more like an afterthought. But that doesn’t seem to bother Grey Hamilton, a rostered junior from Southern Pines, North Carolina. The pride with which he speaks about Ole Miss tennis is almost palpable.

“The tennis program is far and away the most successful sport at Ole Miss.” Hamilton said. “I would actually say football isn’t even close.”

That success did not materialize overnight. At the center of Rebel tennis for the past 30 years, Billy Chadwick, who took over the men’s program in 1983 and retired in 2014, led the Rebels to their first NCAA Team Championship in 1995 and coached the NCAA Doubles champions that same year. His impact was immediate yet lasting; over the past 20 seasons, Ole Miss has, on average, been ranked 12th in the nation by the NCAA. His retirement left enormous shoes to fill.

Hoping to continue Chadwick’s legacy are current head coach Toby Hansson, a veteran of the ATP Tour in Europe, North and Central America and Asia, and his assistant Devin Britton, who was the youngest NCAA Singles champion in Division I history. They bring a quality and coaching style rivaled by few, if any, in the country.

“It’s an honor to play for a program like Ole Miss,.” Hamilton said. “The coaching staff is second to none here; I love playing for them.”

Hansson and Britton bring more than a wealth of experience and knowledge to Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center – they also bring a host of foreign scouting connections. The recruiting process, according to sophomore Filip Kraljevich, a native of Rijeka, Croatia, depends heavily on youth tournaments. With competitions scattered throughout Europe, if a player is ranked highly enough, he can count on an offer even if he never met a school’s recruiter in person.

“You can’t really be wrong when you’re recruiting someone in the top 100,” Kraljevic said. “Sometimes they don’t even look at you. They’ll just message you.”

Hansson, a native of Bjarred, Sweden, offers an especially intimate knowledge of European youth tennis. He keeps in contact with numerous European scouts and is often among the first to learn of talented, foreign up-and-comers. It should come as no surprise that six of the eight men’s tennis players at Ole Miss are European, not uncommon for many NCAA tennis programs.

“Six of eight is probably a pretty high percentage, but I’d say that of the top 30 teams in the country, most of them are at least 50 percent foreign,” Hamilton said.

Kraljevic, for instance, played on the Croatian U18 national team, won the International Tennis Federation’s Junior Doubles Tournament and was the top ranked Croatian junior tennis player. He could have played anywhere, perhaps a professional tour, but he chose to take his talents to Mississippi. The Rebels’ tennis program, it seems, draws international players in like a magnet.

“I heard about the tennis program from a friend. It is really good, and I just loved how the coaches are thinking,” Kraljevic said. “I knew this couldn’t be the wrong decision; I love it here.”

Collegiate tennis’ appeal transcends the sport as more and more international student athletes choose the NCAA route for academic purposes.

“Back in Europe, you can’t really study and play at the same time,” Kraljevic said. “You have to decide one or the other, but here you can do both at the same time, which is amazing.”

Even tennis, played individually or with a single partner, requires solid team morale and coherence. With a unique mix of international flavor on the roster, including players from Germany, Croatia, Sweden, Portugal and the United States, one could imagine team chemistry being an issue … That doesn’t seem to be the case at Ole Miss, however.

“We are probably the closest of all the teams,” Kraljevich said. “We are really good friends with each other. We all hang out with each other.”

With a comparatively small roster, Ole Miss tennis players experience an intimacy other sports team cannot afford.

“Sometimes on big teams, you see freshmen hang out together and upperclassmen hanging out, but with us, you get one or two guys per year, so there’s no room for that stuff,” Hamilton said.“Everyone eats meals together; we go out together. It’s very tight-knit.”

With a home game on March 23 against Auburn, the 6-6 Rebels will need to call on every ounce of chemistry at their disposal if they hope to qualify for a 24th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.