For Malisse, it"s all about concentration No one made any fuss over Belgian player Xavier Malisse last year at the 2001 RCA Championships - even though he was one of the hottest young players competing. While his game was mostly overlooked by the media, his good looks won him NUVO"s cover-boy image for the RCA Championships cover story.

Before the 2001 RCA tournament, the 22-year-old tennis star moved from 127th to 36th place in the ATP Champions Race rankings. This year, he"s ascended a few more slots. "Twenty-second," he tells me in a recent phone interview. And if he was to be mistakenly bumped up to the top 10 by the error of this author? "Yeah, that would be nice," he says, then hesitates. "Oh, no, no, no. On the paper, 22nd." So, 22nd it is. Malisse plays equally well on hard, clay and grass courts. "I like all surfaces. I grew up on clay, but the last five years I"ve been practicing in Florida on the hard," he says, his soft Belgian accent disappearing on the pronunciation of "Florida." It"s his state of residence, so it"s no wonder he says it like a Yank. "It doesn"t really bother me to play on any surface." His performance on grass did falter at Wimbledon last month when Nalbandian put him out to pasture in the semifinals. "Yeah," Malisse laughs agreeably. During that match, he looked distressed. He repeatedly gripped, and even beat, his racquet into his chest. The commentators were certain he was afflicted with heartburn. Malisse explains that he was strictly goosey, not gassy, during his semifinals event. "I"ve had it before. It"s just because I"ve been, I get ... it"s just stress related. When I get really tense, ya know, it all gets a little tense inside and that"s why I have these problems. But it"s nothing, like, real serious." Malisse emphasizes that it was strictly nerves and had nothing to do with his heart. "It beats faster and that"s it," he says. Malisse"s most memorable melee to date was against Agassi last March in Scottsdale. "It"s not really a butt-kicking. It"s definitely a good running match," he says of losing to Agassi. And of that particular skirmish he remarks, "I had a good score, but it was a lot of running. It"s difficult to beat him." Anxiety, however, has been Malisse"s greatest opponent on the courts. Malisse played local tennis figure Troy Hahn during the qualifiers of the 2000 RCA event. Spencer Fields, Hahn"s coach and North Central High School tennis coach, notes, "When I was coaching Troy against him, I felt like we could take advantage of Xavier"s mindset at that point. I"m sure he was not happy with being a qualifier because he knows how talented he is." For Malisse, the past is past. Concentration has increased his control. His brand new coach as of a month ago, Craig Kardon, helps, too. Malisse says of Kardon, "With Craig, it"s really going well off and on the court. He"s very calm and relaxed off the court. We did three weeks [training] on grass. He"ll do all the rest of the year with me." To ease his nerves before a game, "I just relax and play some cards ... in the players lounge and wait for my match." His card game of choice? "Uhhmm. I don"t know. I don"t know the name of the game. I just know how to play," he laughs. Ten minutes before a match he quickly slips into his Adidas Barricade tennies, and grabs his racquet. At Wimbledon, this also meant pulling his long, blond locks back into a pink ponytail holder. Did he know it was pink? "Uhhh. No, I wasn"t really ..." he pauses. "Well, I knew "cause, well ... Once I kept winning I just had to keep the same headband." His ponytail holder superstition is one of many. "Oh, I have plenty. When I keep winning I keep the same thing. I keep the same colors Ö On the court, once I do the same ritual in the change over and it wins me a game, I"ll keep doing the same thing every change over." John McEnroe is a tennis hero to Malisse. "Yeah, I always liked watching him, although I was very little. It was always nice watching "cause you never knew what to expect." The X-Man and his eminence, the McEnroe, have never battled. "We"ve met a couple of times. I like him, he"s a nice person and he"s funny. He says what"s on his mind." A man of admirable exploits in his own right, Malisse is too busy with playing and traveling to miss his native Belgium. "You get used to this life. You"re in a plane, hotel, you have some fun, and the next week you"re in the next city." The European tours get him close to home April through July. "It"s always nice to go home." Partly because of his fondness for Belgian chocolates over Hershey. "Yeah, Belgium chocolate. Exactly." Years ago, when asked if he could sit next to anyone on a plane, who would it be, Malisse stated he would prefer sitting next to "a couple of party girls." Not John McEnroe, or Boris Becker. Today, that answer still holds firm. "I mean, yeah, probably, if it was the holidays." The only fathomable exception being, "If ... I"m on my way to a tournament, then probably not." Browsing the bleachers for party girls in Indianapolis won"t break Malisse from his game. "No, no, no! I gotta concentrate on tennis," he says adamantly. So consider this true, dear reader, particularly if you happen to be Malisse"s coach. Visit

www.atptennis.com

or follow the Tennis Week magazine Web link on the RCA Championships Web page,

www.rcatennis.com

, to check out the most recent rankings.

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