When you think of great tennis nations, Belgium has never particularly been near the top of the list - until now that is. With Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin reaching Grand Slam finals in 2001 at Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively, Xavier Malisse is quickly making his way to the top of the ATP circuit.
After finishing 2001 at a career-high No. 31 in the ATP Champions Race, the 21-year-old from Kortrijk enjoyed a breakthrough year, reaching finals in Delray Beach and Atlanta as well as the fourth round at the US Open.
"We're not doing too bad for such a small country," says Malisse. "I think it all started last year at Roland Garros, where Kim got to the final. But then there's also myself and the Rochus brothers [Oliver and Christophe] - Ollie just got to a final in Copenhagen."
Many ardent followers of the game have heaped high praise on Malisse, the 6'1" Florida resident, ever since he took Pete Sampras to three sets in his first ever ATP event in Philadelphia in 1998. Even Sampras himself predicted big things, saying: "He's got some talent. You're going to see a lot of him."
But after jumping more than 686 positions to No. 161 at the end of '98, Malisse's progress seemed to waiver. "I wasn't enjoying myself," says Malisse. "I made some bad decisions on and off the court and I didn't handle things very well."
It was something Malisse didn't fully realize until last year. "I started enjoying myself a lot more, and really worked hard in practice," says Malisse. "I surrounded myself with some really good people who helped me a lot, they really motivated me."
After a spell working with David Felgate, former coach of Tim Henman, Malisse recruited new coach Dean Goldfine to his corner, the American who is doubling up his duties with Todd Martin. "Dean is really good," says Malisse. "He knows a lot about the game, he's helping me get back into shape and work on my game."
One of the biggest changes is Malisse's willingness to adopt a more aggressive style of play. "I'm really working on getting to the net more," he says. "I feel confident from the back of the court, but I felt some time ago that I needed to add something extra to my game. It's something I've been practicing on, and I do it in a match when I really set my mind to it."
So how far does he think his new game will take him in 2002? "We'll see," he says. "I've got to get myself in shape. It doesn't matter if I'm in the Top 10 or the Top 40, so long as I've given it everything I've got." Malisse, who nearly chose to become a soccer player as a teenager before committing himself to tennis, still enjoys kicking a ball around whenever he gets the chance. "I like to play soccer, as well as golf," he says. "I follow Real Madrid, as my brother lives there, and Manchester United, and David [Felgate] always liked Arsenal, so I should say them as well."
Looking for his first ATP title, don't be surprised to see Malisse become the latest Belgian to hit the headlines this week in Memphis.