A Race Against Time

by: Peter Bodo | August 11, 2010

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103257414 by Pete Bodo

As I write this, Xavier Malisse is preparing to take the court against Andy Murray at the Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto. By the time you read this post, the match may well be over. I wouldn't be shocked by an upset in this one, because Malisse is in the throes of a makeover—something that the serial self-re-inventors who go by the name, "tennis pro" do with surprising frequency.

How many new Andy Roddick's have we had? What does Murray hope to gain by firing his coach? What made Martina Navartilova embrace fitness, and how different was the wigged Agassi from the one who shaved his head?

Well, journeymen re-invent themselves all the time as well, the only problem being that unless they enjoy wild success that takes their games and results up a level, nobody really notices. And Malisse is a great example of a journeyman who wants to make at least a few more big statements before the game leaves him behind. He's a particularly good candidate for a makeover, because he popped onto the scene as a conspicuously gifted prodigy but never really fulfilled the predictions made on his behalf.

More than 12 years ago, as a youth of 18, Malisse qualified for the U.S. Pro Indoor event in Philadelphia and took Pete Sampras to 7-5 in the third before he lost. Later that year, he made the finals in Mexico City. In 2002, Malisse became the first Belgian to reach the Wimbledon semifinals (where he lost to David Nalbandian) in 98 years. He won his first ATP tour title at Delray Beach in 2005.

But by then the pattern by then was becoming clear. He was the constant comer. The guy everyone kept thinking might break through. Eventually, it all wore thin; he broke up instead of breaking through. Something similar probably occurred in his own mind. Over time, he became just another guy with a giant racquet bag, the contents of which included what you might call issues. His claim to fame is being the only Belgian man to be ranked in the Top 20 (he topped out at No. 19 in 2002), a number that hardly satisfied his most ardent advocates. During the winter of 2003, he fell as low as No. 353.

Sometime early this year, Malisse woke up with the disturbing sound of a clock ticking in his head. He found his way to Alistair McCaw, a South African trainer who's also been trying to rehabilitate Michaella Krajicek, who's had trouble getting traction in her comeback attempt, but whom McCaw describes as the most diligent and hardest-working athlete he knows. Malisse and McCaw started working together right after the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, and the partnership has been paying dividends. Malisse is back up to No. 52. En route to the Washington semifinals last week, he had back-to-back wins over John Isner and Tomas Berdych before falling to Marcos Baghdatis.

McCaw knew Malisse's reputation as an easygoing, fairly lazy guy content for most of his career to live off the fat of the ATP land. But he was soon convinced that Malisse was serious about whipping himself into shape. When he hooked up with McCaw, Malisse said, "All I want is footwork, that's the key to me being able to move around the backhand to take the forehand."

The trainer was shocked by Malisse's natural quickness. After their first workout, McCaw told Krajicek, "He [Xavier] may look uninterested, even lazy, on the court. But I was shocked at how quick he is—I've never seen speed like this."

So they started with footwork. Of course, giving yourself over to a professional trainer always is a little like one of those Russian Matryoska dolls. You open one to find another inside, and open that to find yet another, all the way down. Pretty soon, Malisse and McCaw were doing core work, and beach work that differed considerably from the kind to which laid-back Malisse had been accustomed. Malisse ran. It killed his legs. He even took part in a 5k beach race.

That clock is still ticking, of course. Malisse and McCaw both know it. Malisse hasn't missed one of his training sessions with McCaw yet.

"The guy is 30," McCaw told me. "And he doesn't need any junk training. He know what he needs to do at this stage, and it isn't about spending six hours a day on the court. The big issue for a guy at that age is recovery after hard training. What he needed, partly, is smarter training that wouldn't take as much of a toll, but targeted his strength [speed] and achieved results with the the least amount of collateral fatigue."

It's a late-career roll of the die, but there are numerous benefits to re-invention, beginning with the growth of new hope. Tennis players, like the rest of us, are prone to bump up against the wisdom of that old saw declaring that the trouble with "youth" is that it's wasted on the young. But who knows? Armed with replenished enthusiasm and confidence, perhaps Malisse will join that other wayward talent, David Nalbandian, and present obstacles to one or more of the contenders on the way to Flushing Meadows.

One of the benefits of a game as harsh and of-the-day as tennis is that each loss a player suffers is an invitation or goad to re-invention. And when those Ls keep piling up, it's a pretty good incentive to accept one of those invites.

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