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
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
"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
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