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TennisOne Lessons

The X-Man Fights Back

Michael McDowell

Stories abound as the world’s best men and women gather in the desert to complete in the BNP Parabas Open in Indian Wells, an event that some tennis fans call the 5th grand slam. But few of the stories are as entertaining or as enigmatic as that of Xavier Malisse.

Click photo: The X-Man consistently ran around his backhand to hit very aggressive inside out forehands.

It seems like just yesterday that the X man was being proclaimed as the next great champion to roll off the Bollettieri assembly line; and, by 2002, he had reached number 19 in the world. Employing the formula that took Courier and Agassi to the top, Malisse was a ferocious baseliner who could and still can crack winners off both wings. This along with his big serve and fluidity of movement led Mary Carillo to describe Xavier as “oozing with talent.” However, for a whole variety of reasons, the X man never made it to the very highest echelons of the tennis world.

There was a much publicized relationship with Jennifer Capriati, a legendary temper that sometimes caused Malisse to disappear from matches, a severe wrist injury that virtually wiped out his 2007 season, and the November 2009 suspension for failure to report his whereabouts to international anti-doping authorities (a suspension which was rescinded in December). So, as you can see, Xavier has had to clear many hurdles on the road to tennis greatness. Still on some days, the X-Man produces a game that is both fierce and elegant. Furthermore, I believe there is a great deal that can be learned from his tennis journey.

Michael McDowell with Xavier Malisse

Today’s match was for me a microcosm of what I think we as tennis players should learn from Xavier. In the first set he was nearly flawless. Flavio Cipolla, an Italian qualifier, had neither the firepower nor the finesse to put Malisse in any real trouble. As the rallies evolved, Xavier controlled the court with his forehand, rarely hitting a backhand unless his opponent’s ball crossed the singles sideline before it crossed the baseline. He repeatedly opened up the court by hitting his inside out forehand to Cipolla’s backhand. When Cipolla was pulled sufficiently wide; then Malisse would crack the inside in forehand down the line producing either an outright winner or opening up his opponent’s backhand side to finish the point on the next shot. Finally, after getting two breaks of serve, Malisse closed out the set at 6-1 with a very aggressive service game, that opened with an ace and a service winner. This was the X-Man at his best; in almost complete control of his game, and able to impose his will on his opponent. Here there is much to be learned:

  1. Identify your opponent’s weakness, or at least that stroke with which he or she is least likely to hurt you. Then try to use your strongest stroke (your weapon) to attack this chink in your opponent’s armor. Too often recreational players identify a weakness; however, they are too passive in attacking the target.
  1. As the opponent adjusts by cheating to the side you are attacking, be willing to come back to the stronger side to exploit the positional weakness while at the same time opening up the target on the weaker side. Unfortunately, lower level players – even when they systematically exploit an opponent’s weakness – tend to continue aiming at the ever shrinking target until the errors start to flow or until their opponent is able to handle the shot because they have so little distance to move.
  1. Finally, when you have you opponent down, stay aggressive and finish confidently. Too often club players feel the work is done once they have built a lead. They get cautious and wait for the other player to lose the match instead of going out to win it by continuing to do what they did to get ahead.

Click photo: Even though he preferred hitting forehands, the Malisse backhand was nearly flawless throughout the match.

As the second set began, momentum began to shift. Cipolla fought hard to hold serve, then strung together several good shots and with the benefit of an over turned call found himself up 0-30. And just like that, the old X-man came to the fore, as Malisse stalked the baseline muttering to himself before eventually losing serve. However, instead of fading away, he quickly gathered himself and broke right back, wrestling away what ever momentum Cipolla had earned. While the set stayed on serve until 4-4, the outcome seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion.

Then at 4-4, with Malisse threatening to break, he became distracted by a young boy who was moving at the entrance to the court behind the server. I couldn’t help but wonder if a young Malisse would have lost focus and let the game slip away; however, that did not happen. He stayed on task and broke Cipolla to set himself up to serve out the set. Then, once again Malisse came out firing; and fittingly finished the match with another huge forehand deep into his opponent’s backhand corner.

In many ways, this set should be much more instructional than the first. I mean, how often does everything go as well for us as it did for Xavier in the first set? But every tennis player knows that feeling when things begin to go awry. You know, when your opponent refuses to go away and raises the level of his or her game while you relax, perhaps just the slightest amount. The test is whether you can put it behind, regain focus, and give the next point a full effort. Sometimes the frustration is magnified because, through no fault of our own, we don’t the win point, game, or match even though we do give a full and focused effort (hey our opponent is trying too). But, if we can put this frustration behind us, often our opponent will let down because they just won a battle, and now we have an opportunity to win the war. 

Clearly, Xavier Malisse is an intelligent, still young man who knows what he needs to do to get to the top. In watching him play and listening to him talk, I once again found myself hoping he will make another run at the greatness many of us believe resides at the core of his game. Of course, for every Andre Agassi, Steve Nash, or Nolan Ryan who take the very arduous path less traveled and find greatness at the end of their careers – there are hundreds who find satisfaction in what they have already accomplished and go quietly into their good night.

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