Malisse finishes off Britain's Rusedski

Belgian resumes match, becomes 1 of 5 baseliners to reach quarterfinals


July 03, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - He used to change his hair color like other guys changed their shirts, used to skip practice, used to have an attitude, used to carry a label as a flashy tennis player of promise.

But Xavier Malisse of Belgium never really found any tennis success until he decided to get serious about his sport.

And yesterday, the 21-year-old, ponytailed swashbuckler packed his revived career into a one-set showdown with Britain's Greg Rusedski.

On Centre Court, facing a crowd of flag-waving British fans, Malisse was trying to close out a match that was tied at two sets apiece when darkness descended Monday. He displayed uncommon grit and his flashy baseline gifts before punching one last forehand volley to oust Rusedski, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

"Everybody was talking and saying that I had talent, but I wasn't really working hard," Malisse said of those days in 1999 and 2000 when his career was stuck in neutral and he sank to qualifiers and the Challenger circuit.

He wanted to give himself a shot, just one, at making something of his career.

And he has done it, reaching Wimbledon's quarterfinals for the first time.

He persevered against all of Wimbledon's elements, the fickle weather, the cover of darkness, a long night between fourth and fifth sets, the British fans and the big-serving Rusedski.

"I've never had this before," Malisse said. "It was a little bit tough. I mean, you're thinking about it. Obviously, I was thinking about it more when I got up than when I went to bed."

He had help, though.

Wimbledon's grass.

Around here, the grass is either too long or too short, too fast or too slow, but never entirely the same year to year.

This year, most players agree, the All England Club's lawns are playing slower than usual.

Some have said the dry first week slowed it all down. Others have said Britain's wet spring soaked the courts.

Whatever the reason, there has to be something to it, because there are four other baseliners joining Malisse in the quarterfinals: No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, Brazil's Andre Sa, Argentina's David Nalbandian and Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti.

Two big servers are still fighting for a place in the quarters against Malisse, the first Belgian since 1924 to advance so far at Wimbledon. Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, the 1996 champion, and Mark Philippoussis of Australia were tied at two sets each when their round-of-16 match was stopped by rain. It is scheduled to resume today.

In today's quarterfinals, No. 4 Tim Henman, the last British man left in the tournament, meets Sa. Hewitt faces No. 18 Sjeng Schalken, a serve-and-volleyer from the Netherlands.

The other quarterfinal was pushed back a day with Nalbandian, in his first Wimbledon, meeting Lapentti, guaranteeing that a South American player will reach the semifinals.

"You've never seen so many baseliners so deep in the tournament," Rusedski said. "Usually you'll see [Andre] Agassi, who is the only baseliner who really goes deep on grass, and [Bjorn] Borg in the past history, but that was wooden rackets."

So why are the courts slower?

"It's a combination of a few things," Rusedski said. "It's the ball. The court. But that's not an excuse. At the end of the day, you've just got to win, no matter what. If you're serving 130, hit the corners, you don't care what you're playing on."

Malisse grabbed the only service break, pushing to a 4-3 lead in the last set when Rusedski sent a volley into the net.

In the last game, Malisse had to hold nerve as well as his serve during long, swooping rallies that had the normally docile Centre Court audience oohing and aahing as if watching a circus trapeze act.

In the end, Malisse was tougher, pushing Rusedski wide on one last explosive serve, and then putting away the volley.

How good is Malisse? No one is quite sure. He's still young and inconsistent, but he hits these wondrous shots.

"He's very crafty because he has got a long reach," Rusedski said. "He's quick, he's flowy, he makes shots out of nothing sometimes."

And in a Wimbledon where nearly anything is possible, Malisse just might be able to conjure up a title from the baseline.

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