Absence of Malisse bodes well for U.S. hopes
Published August 30, 2005
NEW YORK · Xavier Malisse sat at an interview table Monday, less than an hour after winning his first-round match at the U.S. Open, and delivered the good news to the U.S. Davis Cup team in his usual languid manner.
Wait. Let me amend that. Let's say I'm pretty sure it's good news when Belgian captain Steve Martens dumps Malisse off the squad that will play the United States, on clay in Belgium, Sept. 23-25.
Of Belgium's three leading players, Malisse (46-33) is the only one with a career winning record on dirt. And now he's Davis Cup history, maybe for good after this less-than-amiable split.
The Belgians will go with the smurf-like Rochus brothers, 5-foot-5 Olivier and 5-7 Christophe. Both are having their best years. Both also have career losing records on clay: 50-63 for the big guy and 36-48 for his younger brother.
Not that the U.S. is in great shape for this tie, with Andre Agassi not playing and the tie on clay, a surface on which Agassi is the only accomplished American player. And if the U.S. loses, it is eliminated from the 16-nation World Group, meaning captain Patrick McEnroe's team can't compete for the Davis Cup in 2006.
But having Malisse out of the mix certainly doesn't hurt the Americans' chances. Even if Martens wanted to play the Rochus brothers in the four singles matches, why wouldn't you want to have Malisse on the squad in case one of them got hurt?
What happened, said Malisse, is simple. "I said to the Davis Cup captain I'm available to play and he didn't select me. That's basically what it comes down to."
Martens dumped Malisse because he wouldn't commit to playing Davis Cup all through 2006. He will find out, if he loses this tie to the U.S., that there is no 2006.
Malisse, who has lived in Bradenton for years and trained at Bollettieri's there, loves to play Delray Beach, where he was a finalist in 1999 and 2001. He's not keen on flying there from Australia, then flying back to Belgium "or wherever."
He hasn't discussed this controversy with the Rochus brothers because, he said, they were obviously in on the decision to leave him off the team.
Olivier is ranked 29th, Christophe 53rd and Malisse 54th. But Malisse is a very dangerous opponent. When his emotions are right, as they were when he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2002, he can beat anyone. And he would be particularly difficult to beat on clay.
"I'm not bitter," Malisse explained. "But if they're going to turn this against me, I will be bitter. If they make it seem like I didn't want to play."
You're not going to catch McEnroe celebrating over this news, at least not publicly. When he's ready to comment, he's going to say something on the order of: "We have a great deal of respect for Xavier's game, but the Rochus brothers are having great years, and on clay they can beat anyone.''
Everyone connected with the U.S. team would feel a lot more confident about getting back into World Group if Agassi was playing. But Andre is in no position to definitely commit.
His sketchy back and sciatica problem could flare up at any time, and I'm guessing there's about a 10 percent chance Agassi will play against Belgium. You can't rule him out, but it's not probable. Even the Davis Cup team is mentally preparing itself to play without Andre for this one.
McEnroe has until Sept. 13, two days after the men's final here, to declare his team. There's no question Roddick and the doubles-playing Bryan twins will play, and the fourth spot will go to Robby Ginepri, James Blake or to Agassi.
The Rochus brothers are great runners and clever players. But they haven't been particularly brilliant on clay this year. Christophe is 10-9 and Olivier 4-8.
But they're playing at home and against a U.S. team that, aside from the 2004 French Open-winning Bryan twins, has not staggered anyone on clay.
Still, it's going to be a lot easier with Malisse out of the way.
Charles Bricker can be reached at [email protected]