Translation from the Swedish of this piece by Sebastian Gustafsson
His admiration of Roger Federer, how six straight final losses stayed in his head, why he never reached his full potential and how coaching life is mainly about eating and drinking. On working with father Tomic. SweTennis meets Xavier Malisse.
Many elite athletes have problems when their careers end. Xavier Malisse knew this and decided early on to stay on the tour as a coach.
“When I stopped, I was afraid of just sitting at home and doing nothing.”
He started by travelling with his fellow countryman Reuben Bemelmans almost immediately.
“But it wasn’t the right decision and maybe I wasn’t the right man.”
Is it right that you said a few months ago that all you do as a coach is eat and drink?
“It’s true. I’ve coached a few guys. Sometimes you stand on the court and hit with them, but mostly you check on them while they train and see if everything’s OK. But that takes energy. So in the evening, you know … [laughs]. I still have to lose a few kilos but I’ve already lost some.”
Coaching was was exactly what he was doing the last time he visited Stockholm just five months ago when Swetennis was the first to reveal that he was travelling with Bernard Tomic for a few weeks.
“I came here last year with Tomic. But that was …[laughs]”
Yes, what was it like working with John (Bernard’s father)?
“To be honest, John knows an awful lot about tennis and is a nice person, but everything is about tennis 24 hours a day. Sometimes you need to go home and …”
Eat and drink?
“Exactly, and not talk about tennis. You have your time for that when you go the facility, you train, you stretch. But when you get back to the hotel you need to relax and give yourself some space. John know a lot and he has a lot of good ideas about tennis.”
But Malisse, who is something of a bon vivant, isn’t interested in too much tennis, and wasn’t either during his career.
“When Tomic and I arrived at the hotel it was all about tennis. It never ended, it was three hours of tennis directly into your ear. When I played I used to arrange it so that when I was done with the tennis and arrived back at the hotel to eat, I told my mates that now we don’t talk about tennis or tactics. Now we have a normal life.”
Loves exhibition matches
Travelling around and playing exhibition matches with the old guard seems to suit Malisse extremely well.
“This is perfect for me. I love this life. You play tennis, you give the crowd a show, you talk to people, you try to win. It’s a good mix. You meet sponsors There’s no pressure. You have a drink, you eat something, you play tennis and you laugh. It’s great.”
He’s not thinking of giving up coaching though.
“I’m waiting for the right person to ask me, but now I’m doing 8-12 weeks with Nils Desein to help him out, but not full time like with Bemelmans. I’m doing a few weeks up to the French Open and I’ll be there during the French Open – I’m playing exhibitions too. It feels like it can be a good mix – play a little and coach a little, because I like coaching.
The French Open is special
Precisely the French Open is special for the Belgian.
“For us it’s better to play Roland Garros then the Davis Cup. There are never many people at the Davis Cup. When we go to the French Open you have to stand around for two hours before you can get a seat so for us Belgians playing Roland Garros is fantastic. It was like playing in Belgium.”
The French Open is also special for Xavier Malisse who has a title there. Together with Oliver Rochus when won the doubles title there in 2004.
“It’s definitely the high point. Most of all because that title was with Olivier.”
This despite the fact that Malisse comes from the Flemish part of Belgium and Rochus from the French part in a country where that equation isn’t completely problem free.
“Oliver and I travelled to Japan together when we were 12 to play in the junior World Championship so for us it was amazing and special. When we won the French Open all our countrymen were suddenly Belgians [laughs].”
“Suddenly there were a lot of Belgians in the final. Clijsters and Henin were almost always in the women’s final and the men’s doubles was right after, which meant there were a lot of Belgians who had tickets. But none of them made the final, and the women’s final was over in 50 minutes since it was 6-1 6-2 or something like that,” remembers Malisse and continues:
“We met Santoro and Llodra so it was France against Belgium. It was special. To have known Oliver so long and win together 12-13 years later was fantastic. It was actually a very good final. We had a bit of a dip in the second set but it was great.”
Reached 19 in the world
Malisse best ranking was 19 in singles, and three titles and a Wimbledon semi-final were the highlights.
“Sure they were the highlights. Fourth round against Andre Agassi at the US Open was another, a five-setter in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Grand Slam matches are the ones you remember best because they’re the absolute highest level.”
His first ATP title was unforgettable, especially because it laid to rest a finals ghost that had been haunting him for a long time.
“Winning my first ATP title was a huge moment for me. I’d lost six finals, five of them in tie-breakers, so I was beginning to wonder if I could win. It was very special for me.”
When did you start wondering if you couldn’t win?
“The first three losses were nothing since I shouldn’t have won on paper, but then I met Volandri and that one I should have won. Then there was a final in Adelaide where I had injury problems which meant that I couldn’t move. That was against Florent Serra so it was a good chance to win a title, but if you’re injured it’s tough. They were the two finals I should have won, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.”
So Julien Benneteau should ask you how to finally win a final?
“Yeah, he’s lost a few finals, right?”
Ten in a row, I think it is …
“Ouch, that’s rough. Really rough. It was really rough for me after six losses so I can understand how he feels.”
You’ve probably been asked this question before, but many think you could have gone higher than you did. Was there a time when you felt you could have done better?
“I know what you mean and I’ve heard it before. I knew that my tennis was good enough at the start of my career but I was like this in my head all the time,” he says while wiggling his finger at his head.
“But there was a time when I was 26-27. I worked really hard. I began to understand that I needed to train harder and in November/December that year I trained really really hard. At the beginning of the year I beat Nadal in Chennai and won the doubles there. A few weeks later I won the singles and doubles in Delray Beach. I was 25th in the world and I had no points to defend in the next six months. Physically I was better than ever and then I got injured. Sure I could have done better at the beginning of my career, but now I was 26 and very strong physically and mentally.”
“I was playing well, I was in the quarter-final in Memphis and ahead 1-0 in sets and right then I knew I could be a top 15 player. Even a top 10 player. I beat a lot of good players. I beat Nadal, Blake and Santoro. Everything felt good but injuries are tough. I got hurt hitting a backhand. It was tough.
“For me it was a time in my life where I wished I’d been injury free because I felt I could be top 10. I believed it because I’d done the hard work and mentally I was good.”
Compared to early in your career or what then?
“When I made the Wimbledon semi-final I didn’t do much more that year than relax and think it had been a good year in any case. But I was 26 so it didn’t maybe feel like it was my last chance, and I could reach my full potential. But when you get injured and have to start over again when you’re 28, it’s tough to start over again.”
You ended your career recently. Was it a tough decision?
“It was tough and it wasn’t tough. It wasn’t so tough because inside I was empty. I’d played all summer and didn’t have the same desire as before. I felt it was over for me. When you quit like that it’s easy to think you miss it, but it was the right time.”
Are there any players you like watching now?
“I love to watch Federer. I’ve always liked him. Even when I played against him it was fantastic at times. He was the toughest to play against. Sometimes I look at Monfils and Tsonga. I’m not a big fan of Djokovic. It’s the same game all the time, but Federer … You never knew what shot would come and that’s all the time. I don’t watch so much tennis. I watch Grand Slams a bit, but not much else.”
Was it strange playing against Federer when you admired him so much?
“Most of the time you don’t beat him anyway. I had some good matches against him. Sometimes I felt that now I was playing well and had a chance against him. I remember one time at the Australian Open when I’d beaten Andujar and Montanes and was playing really well. I was meeting Federer next and he wasn’t playing his best tennis so I thought that now I really had a chance. We started and he played sick tennis. It was 4-0 after twelve minutes. I just stood there and thought … It was tough, it was on TV and there was a big crowd and really I was just one of the ball kids. It got better, but you know it sometimes felt embarassing to be on the court. There weren’t many who can do the things he did. Or does.”
Did you have any good friends on the tour?
“It’s hard to have best friends on the tour. To be honest, I got along with everyone. Off the court I was pretty relaxed [laughs]. We talked and got along, but was never like we went out to eat. My friends, maybe the Dutch players because we spoke the same language, Haase and Sijsling. Even the French players like Clement and Grosjean. But it always ended up with hanging around with the coach and friends who were with you instead. I had a few American friends too since I lived there, Jesse Levine especially, but it’s not like I’m still calling them.”
It’s would probably be more amusing to ask who you didn’t get along with. Were there any?
“[Laughs] Yes,” he says and squirms.
It seems like we should skip that question now I’m not afraid of you any more?
“Yes, we’ll skip it [laughs] …”