Xavier Malisse on life on the ATP tour – as player and coach

Translation from the Swedish of this piece  by

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.”

What happened?

“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] …”

Advertisements

“I can be very tough on myself”: Interview with umpire Louise Engzell

“I can be very tough on myself”

From an interview by Johanna Jonsson on Tennis.se.

After the Swedish tennis miracle, a new blue and yellow has taken over the tennis world. In an interview, umpire Louise Engzell talks about the work behind the scenes on the international professional tennis tours. “We take a lot of crap sometimes,” she says.

Umpiring Grand Slam finals on the tennis world’s greatest scene was far from a childhood dream.  As a youth, Louise Engzell had her eyes opened to umpiring when, much against her will, she umpired matches at her home club of Sollentuna.

“We were forced to take a course when we were quite small, and that’s the way it went. I didn’t think much of it at all at the beginning. Later on we took another course and it began to be fun. We could take part in the Kalle Anka (the present SEB Next Generation Cup) in Båstad, start to travel a little and then take part in the Swedish Open and the Stockholm Open,” says the 34-year-old whose career starting point came after taking an Elite-level umpiring course.

No one needs to force her into the umpiring chair today. She said yes to going home to Sweden for the Davis Cup tie in Jönköping to work during her holidays.

“The best part of being an umpire is the challenge. You never know what awaits you when you go to work,” says Engzell, who has lived in Paris for the last few years.

What is the worst part?

“We take a lot of crap sometimes. But you learn and grow all the time. We talk a lot with our colleagues and bosses, we go through and analyse what you did or didn’t do and always try and better ourselves. Sometimes it isn’t even a mistake and there’s still an uproar.”

Scolded by Berdych

One good example was at last year’s US Open when she was yelled at by Tomas Berdych. The Czech exploded after a correct umpiring decision but said he was sorry on Twitter the day after. Only she knows what went through her head, as she won’t talk about particular situations or individual players. On the TV screen, she looks like a calm umpire in the chair—something which Engzell sees as one of her strengths.

“I can keep my cool without getting too stressed. I can read different personalities quite well and see how to tackle the different players and their personalities.”

Are you good at taking criticism?

“It’s something I can improve on. I can be very tough on myself, which can also be good. I get angry and it takes a while to get myself together. Especially if you’re not 100% sure if you could have explained things in a better way and had the match better under control. In those situations you can sit and ponder and think,” she says.

“Swedish umpires have become a thing on the tours”

Together with, among others, her fellow Swede Mohamed Lahyani and Lars Graff as well as a group of tournament officials of a high international level, Louise Engzell is part of Swedish umpiring elite.

“I don’t know why we have so many umpires. It’s actually become a thing on the tours—especially now, when we don’t have so many players at the top levels, but a lot of top umpires.”

The 34-year-old has umpired Grand Slam finals at the French Open and the US Open, as well as the Olympic final in London in 2012, but still thinks she has a ways to go to reach the status of fellow Swedes Lahyani and ex-umpire Graff.

“I’m on my way there. I haven’t been at the job that long yet. It takes many, many years to get the same respect. It’s very much about trust, that they can trust you. You can win a lot with trust. It means you can handle a match better.”

After the finals in Paris and New York, Engzell has two matches on her dream list.

“I’d like to do one final in all the different Grand Slam tournaments. So Wimbledon and the Australian Open are there.”

Louise Engzell on …

Hawkeye:

“It’s just positive. The advantage with Hawkeye is that it’s a final judgement. Whether the player agrees or not, there no one to complain to or yell at. They accept it and play goes on. It’s fantastic and makes things so much easier.”

Psychology in the umpiring chair:

“Different players react in different ways. Some players you need to be harder with right from the start, others you can use a softer approach with. Some players want you to tell them if they’re taking too long between points while others just want the warning directly. It’s about getting to know the players.”

Relations with the players:

“We have no relations with the players. Those are the rules. There can’t be any semblance of a reason to doubt your fairness because you’ve had dinner with a player. There cannot be any question. And you don’t, if at all possible, umpire a player from your own country. You try and avoid all problems that could possibly arise.”

Her best matches:

“The US Open final in 2012 between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. I think it was one of the longest women’s matches ever.”

“The Olympic final in London is a special memory. The atmosphere was fantastic even if the match was rather short. Serena won 6-0, 6-1 against Sharapova.”

“One of my best matches was the 2012 Davis Cup match between Romania and Finland. It was the deciding match and it took almost five hours. It was extremely close and tense, a really good atmosphere and ambiance. It doesn’t need to be top players playing each other, it can even be at a lower level. The atmosphere is one you can only get at a DC match.”

Her favourite tournament:

“I hadn’t been in Båstad for a very long time, so I was there this (last) year. It was really cool coming back to Sweden. I like the atmosphere, the mood; everyone’s equal and eat together no matter what their job is. Besides that, I like the Grand Slam tournaments a lot. Each one is different from the other.”

Translated from the Swedish by Mark Nixon.

Many thanks to Victoria Chiesa for the tip.