No retelling of Jennifer Capriati's phoenixlike ascent is
complete, it seems, without a reference to her romantic
uncoupling from her boyfriend of most of 2000, Belgian pro
Xavier Malisse. Only in the absence of Malisse was Capriati able
to metamorphose from a human cautionary tale into the winner of
two Grand Slam singles titles--or so the stories go. "It's
pretty funny to me how it's been written and talked about," says
the ex-man, reluctantly discussing his least favorite topic.
"I'm the bad guy. It's like, without me she would have done it
Malisse, too, has embarked on a dramatic resurgence since his
less-than-amicable split with Capriati last fall. Distracted by
the relationship and pondering quitting tennis, he finished last
year ranked No. 127. After shaking the Etch-a-Sketch and starting
2001 with a clean slate, he has improved nearly 90 spots in the
rankings. Entering this week's Tennis Masters Series event in
Cincinnati, he was No. 44, having beaten defending U.S. Open
champ Marat Safin and 2001 Australian Open runner-up Arnaud
Clement this summer. He has reached the semifinals or better at
four events this year and is a dark horse for the U.S. Open,
which begins on Aug. 27. "I'm only 21," he says in flawless
English, "but it's like I've had two careers already."
Malisse plays effortless tennis. He has a forehand capable of
leaving exit wounds and, befitting the son of a butcher, also
deploys a deft slice to break up rallies. Because of his power
and variety from the backcourt, he is a favorite practice partner
of Andre Agassi's. "He's a great striker of the ball," says
Agassi. "He's starting to keep it together in his head and put
together some good wins. I consider him a real threat."
When he turned pro in 1998 at age 17, Malisse accompanied Safin
and Lleyton Hewitt on the short list of can't-miss prospects. In
his first ATP match he led Pete Sampras, then the best player in
the world, 5-4 in the third set. Sampras won, but Malisse was
ecstatic. "I was, like, Hey, I'm 17 and I almost beat Sampras,"
he says. "This is going to be easy."
Malisse bought a black BMW and put his career on cruise control.
Hanging out with Capriati trumped fitness training and
practicing. The ketchup he slathered on his fries was his lone
vegetable, and he perfected his between-the-legs shot at the
expense of his second serve. He also spent hours tinkering with
new hairstyles and colorings. "I wanted to be like Dennis
Rodman," he says sheepishly. "It was just a phase."
His similarities to the Worm extended to a highly combustible
temper. At a junior event in Belgium, Malisse reacted to a
questionable line call by wheeling the umpire's chair onto the
court. "It wouldn't have been so bad if the umpire wasn't still
in it," he says. "I was defaulted for that." The slightest
dissonance--a bad draw, a missed forehand, even a late-arriving
courtesy car--would destroy his equilibrium.
He also shared Rodman's fondness for carousing. Asked in an ATP
questionnaire whom he would like to sit next to on a long flight,
Malisse responded, "A coupla party girls." His ideal day? "Wake
up at five in the afternoon so I could stay out all night."
Malisse's results last year left him plenty of time for both
gallivanting and sleeping in. Time and again he would lose in
qualifying, skip town and then wait a week before his next match.
"X was gone before the big names got to a tournament, so he
didn't get to see how they conduct themselves," says Malisse's
new coach, David Felgate of Britain, who spent the past nine
years mentoring Tim Henman. "He had the habits of a 20-year-old
kid, not a professional player."
As his game has picked up, Malisse has discovered the reality of
the tennis tour: the better one's results, the better the
working conditions, the better one's results. A year ago Malisse
was grinding out brutal qualifying matches and competing in
challenger events in towns such as Binghamton, N.Y.--"the worst
place in the world," he says. Now he typically stays in
four-star hotels, gets massages after his matches and revels in
his star perks. Last month, for instance, while in Los Angeles
for an ATP tournament, he accepted a morning invitation to the
Playboy Mansion. ("All the girls were asleep," he says.)
His romantic life has rebounded as well. Malisse's new steady is
Katie Castermans, who works in the fashion industry in Belgium
and gave him the silver ring he wears on the middle finger of his
left hand. He calls and e-mails her from the road, but this time,
he vows, his love life won't disrupt his career. "I've been a pro
three years," he says. "But I'm just now figuring out what 'being
a pro' really means."
COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT SCHECHTER/ALLSPORT
"I'm only 21, but it's like I've had two careers already," says