`Hometown' Belgian finally wins in ITC
By Michael Russo
February 7, 2005
DELRAY BEACH · Since 1998, when he was a hot-dog teenager with pink hair, Xavier Malisse has played at the Millennium International Tennis Championships.
He twice appeared in the finals without winning, and as the tournament's winningest player, Delray fans began to think of the Belgian as one of their own.
Sunday afternoon, behind a contingent of supporters, the third-seeded Malisse won his first ATP championship, claiming the ITC title and a $52,000 payday with a 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory over second-seeded and 28th-ranked Jiri Novak.
Having to rally from a 5-2 deficit in the first set against a player who hadn't lost a set all week, the 46th-ranked Malisse, 16-5 lifetime at the ITC, broke an 0-for-6 mark in ATP finals.
Even sweeter, victory came against the accomplished Novak, who has won seven ATP titles, including one when Malisse was appearing in his first final as an 18-year-old rookie in Mexico City.
"That was a pretty big monkey, but it's finally off my back," said Malisse, 24, who dropped to the court in tears after Novak's return in a lengthy rally sailed long on match point.
"This is a feeling I've never felt. Probably the best moment was seeing that last ball go out. I knew if I kept giving myself chances, this had to come one day."
Malisse, playing his 117th event, entered as one of two in the top 100 world rankings to have played 100 events and not won a tournament. (Belgian Christophe Rochus, ranked 100th, has played 105.)
Malisse is also the first to lose at least six finals before winning his first since Cedric Pioline ended an 0-for-9 streak in Copenhagen in 1996.
Malisse had lost to Lleyton Hewitt (1999) and Jan-Michael Gambill (2001) in the ITC finals. He said those defeats never entered his mind although Novak, who lost for only the fourth time in 21 matches, had defeated Malisse in four of five previous meetings.[/b]
It looked to be swinging Novak's way in the first set. Having not faced a break point in his previous two matches, he fought back to save two break points in the first game. He eventually broke Malisse's serve in the fourth en route to a 5-2 advantage.
"I had the game under control," said Novak, playing in his 13th final. "But then everything changed."
Malisse held his serve in the eighth game and went after Novak assertively in the ninth. Novak fell behind love-30, saved break point once but couldn't a second time. Malisse handcuffed Novak on a return that he briefly hesitated returning because he thought it would go long.
In the tiebreaker, Malisse jumped out to a 4-1 lead. Novak rallied three times to tie. But at 6-6, Malisse forced a mini-break and was able to serve out the set with a blistering forehand into the corner for an 8-6 victory.
"I got away with the first set, that's for sure," Malisse said.
Having blown such a lead and expended that much energy in his tiebreaker comeback attempt, Novak was dejected heading into the second and his serve was broken in the fourth game.
"[Losing the first set] was a terrible feeling," Novak said..
Added Malisse, "I think in the first game [of the second set, Novak] was definitely mentally out of it. Then mentally he got back, but physically he wasn't as strong."
Malisse is the first to claim a singles and doubles title in 2005. He teamed with countryman Olivier Rochus to defeat Simon Aspelin and Todd Perry for the title in Adelaide in the season opener.
"When I started the season, my goal was to win a [singles] tournament," Malisse said. "Now I won one, so now we have to reset some goals and try to do some better things. I know I can win a title now. I hope this victory gets me to a different level."
In doubles, top-seeded Aspelin and Perry, in their third final of 2005, won their first title together, defeating Jordan Kerr and Jim Thomas 6-3, 6-3.
Michael Russo can be reached at email@example.com
Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel