Malisse wants off his leash

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Xavier Malisse is not one of the ATP's "New Balls Please" promotees...but that could be an oversight.

The Belgian tennis prodigy, expected to burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, may finally be ready for his arrival, with a solid 10-5 record and an appearance in one final already this season.

The 20-year-old righthander has the potential to be Belgium's best-ever player (and maybe that's not saying much), but only time will tell if that prognostication will come to fruition.

The 6-1, 162-pounder is like so many of today's performers, as he possesses the punishing groundstrokes required to compete against the game's multitude of baseline sluggers. And also like some many of today's players, the Kortrijk native resides in sunny Florida -- the unofficial (or maybe it is official) tennis capital of the world.

The four-year pro is currently 35th in the ATP's Champions Race and 80th in the "real" world rankings -- the Singles Entry System. He closed out 2000 as No. 127 in the Champions Race.

I'm reasonably sure that Malisse will be a future star on the tour. He's off to a good start this season, as the 10-5 mark includes a championship match in five events. Malisse went all the way to the final in Delray Beach, Florida, where he was ultimately stopped by red-hot American Jan-Michael Gambill, 7-5, 6-4. On his way to the title match, Malisse took out former Top-10er Nicolas Lapentti and the always-pesky Fabrice Santoro.

And the week before Delray Beach, Malisse advanced to the semifinals in San Jose, losing to another former Top-10 star, and 1997 U.S. Open runner-up, Greg Rusedski. The Belgian waffled three-time Wimbledon runner-up Goran Ivanisevic and 2000 Olympic silver medalist Tommy Haas to reach the round of four in California. And oh by the way, Haas is one of the "New Balls Please" guys. In beating Mr. Haas, Malisse avenged a loss to the athletic German in the second round of the season-opening event in Adelaide, Australia -- a tourney Haas went on to capture.

In his second tournament of the year, Malisse was a three-set loser against former world No. 1 and 2000 U.S. Open titlist Marat Safin in late January in Milan. Malisse took the big Russian to the edge before succumbing 7-5 in the final set. And a few weeks later in Memphis, the Belgian made it to the second round before bowing out against Gambill, who's currently an impressive third in the Champions Race.

The upstart Malisse, who's been idle since the Delray Beach final on March 11, is still in search of his first-ever ATP title, having gone winless in a trio title matches. He reached his first-ever final in Mexico City in 1998, and appeared in his first of two Delray Beach finals back in 1999.

After barely outlasting the then-17-year-old Malisse 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in Philadelphia three years ago, the great Pete Sampras exclaimed, "He's got some talent, you're going to see a lot of him. But since those plaudits 1998, everybody has been waiting to see what Sampras from Malisse saw that day.

That wait could be coming to an end, as Malisse is starting to find his way on tour after a couple of years spent getting to grips with the high expectations that surrounded him.

Malisse has the talent to compete at the highest level, but he knows he hasn't achieved what many thought he might to this point in his career. "Probably [Lleyton] Hewitt and Safin handled the pressure better than I did," said the Belgian about the expectations placed on his shoulders.

"When everyone was looking at me and my results, I didn't like it. There was a strange feeling in the air about why I didn't win. Now it's better for me because I am only looking at myself and not what other people are saying. I'm playing good tennis and I have a lot of confidence."

At the still-green age of 20, Malisse has his whole career in front of him. He can take heart from the rise of Safin, who, around this time last year, had barely won a match and was more likely to self-destruct than inflict any damage on the opposition.

Safin, with the help of temporary coach at that time Andrei Chesnokov, focused his powerful weapons on his opponents rather than himself, and captured the U.S. Open, a pair of Tennis Masters Series events and finished No. 2 in the world in 2000.

The "X Man" is currently the highest-ranked Belgian in the Champions Race and has a legitimate chance to place himself in the Top 20 by year's end.

Perhaps, like Safin, Malisse is ready to lay it all on the line. He returns to action in Portugal this week following a four-week respite.

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