Those of you who have followed this site (or my tweets–sorry about that) for a while know that I am a fan of the Belgian player Xavier Malisse. Well, it’s a sad week for me, because Malisse just played his last professional tennis match in the Mons Challenger.
Malisse was hysterically temperamental on the court, constantly conversing with himself, the umpire, and the fans. At the Citi Open this year, when he was winning his match against Rajeev Ram, he missed a routine forehand and looked disgusted with himself. A guy from the stands yelled out, “It’s okay, Xavier!” Malisse shook his head, looked at his racket in disgust, and said, “No, it’s not okay. It’s really not.” (And that was probably the only quote from that match that is safe to reprint.)
But off the court he was almost alarmingly soft-spoken and nice–a favorite with fans, fellow players, and even tournament staff. See, for example, his goodbye video to his fans after he lost the first-round match to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round of Mons:
His retirement didn’t come as a surprise to me at all–he is 33, and I got a chance to talk with him one-on-one at the Citi Open and he said that the U.S. Open would likely be his last slam. There was momentary talk of him competing at the Australian Open, but his father is ill and he took time off after the U.S. Open and just decided to say goodbye at the biggest tournament in Belgium, the Mons Challenger. Makes sense.
During the past few years I’ve gotten to know Melissa, a fan who has run his website, Twitter, and Facebook account. Throughout this work she has become friends with Malisse, and she was the last person to get to interview Malisse in Mons.
Melissa was nice enough to translate that interview for us and share her experience with The Changeover. It’s great to get an insider’s perspective into Malisse’s last days on tour. Take it away, Melissa:
When I drove to Mons I knew that this was probably going to be the last day that I would see Xavier Malisse as a professional player on a tennis court. After following him for 14 years, and managing his website, twitter and facebook page, I was in for an emotional day.
For a while I’ve been writing for Tennisplaza.be, a site covering all Belgian players, and Xavier promised me to give me his last interview before this final match. He gave me a bit of a guided tour behind the scenes, and we had the interview in the players room. I asked him what he expected of his last match. “It won’t be easy today, it will be a very special match. We’ll see how it goes, it’s difficult to say goodbye after such a long career,” he said. “I invited some friends and family, I hope it will be a good match”
When did he decided to quit? “The grass season was ok, I like playing on grass. On Wimbledon I lost to Verdasco, but I played a good match. In Colombia, it did not work out because of the altitude, but I really lost confidence in Washington. I managed to win a match there, but the drive to win was gone, the drive to train was gone, everything. I decided to work with Alistair McCaw to be ok for the US Open, as this would probably be my last Slam I played a good match against Seppi, it was pretty close in the 3rd and 4th set. But I missed some confidence, and so I lost that match.”
Malisse told the Belgian press later that he did not really train since the US Open, and that he did not really miss it. The “hunger” to win was gone.
What would he miss the most? “After all those years of playing, I met a lot of people. Tennis as well, playing big matches on Grand Slams, or on show courts. Those were the moments I’ve enjoyed the most.”
He surprised me when we talked about the things that he would not miss. I’d expected him to say “the umpires,” but he told me that off court they got along quite ok. What he hated the most during all those years was the criticism and the lack of respect from people. “In Belgium you are criticized by almost everybody,” he said. “Not me personally as a sportsman, but also sports in general. Everybody is always pretty negative, while we all do our best to achieve something. We have to play a fabulous match or need to book a great result before people even consider to say something positive. Some reactions on forums show just no respect at all.”
And then we talked about the future. Malisse would like to travel with a young player, as a coach, but hasn’t got any real proposal yet. He hopes give his experience to the new generation. He would also like to spend more time in Belgium, as this is still his home, closer to his friends and family. When it would get too cold here in the winter, he can always escape to Florida
Will we ever see X-Man on a tennis court again? “Probably, but from now on just for fun, without the stress. Maybe some interclubs in France and Germany, some local tournaments, or some exhibition matches. They can always invite me at the Optima Open in Knokke, where players like McEnroe, Becker, Noah, Ivanisevic play each year to entertain the public.”
After the “official” part of the interview, we continued talking. We discussed about how our lives went, being the same age, how much life had changed in 14 years. I still remember seeing him beating Roger Federer in 1999 at the Davis Cup against Switzerland, the first time I saw him, after starting up his website some months before. In all those years I met so many people doing his website, that I cannot even imagine anymore how my life would have gone if I hadn’t started his site. We took a picture together, and then it was time for him to prepare his match.
I don’t recall a lot of the match itself, I invited some colleagues from work, and we watched the match together. He got a huge applause before, during and after the match, really what he deserved. After the match, there was a little ceremony, organized by Dominique Monami, once WTA no. 9 of the world, and now tournament director of the Ethias Trophy.
Things really got emotional during Malisse’s farewell speech. Malisse thanked his fans, for supporting him “even in moments where they probably wondered what I was doing.” He cried a first time when he thanked his brother, who took care of everything, so Xavier only had to focus on playing tennis. He thanked his father, who could not be there due to illness, for giving him the chance to play tennis, for supporting him all those years.
And at last he thanked his mother, who passed away 3 years ago, saying that she was with him in his heart during all these matches. He had no words to express his feelings. I was crying, Dominque Monami was crying, I think the whole stadium was crying with him. So many emotions.
After some drinks to recover from all that, I went to his last press conference, and after that we had a short talk and he recorded a “thank you” message for his fans (shown above) As a souvenir, he gave me his last racket and signed it. Thank you Xavier, for all those fantastic years”
In Melissa’s latest e-mail to me, she said that on a radio interview today Xavier said that if he saw a McDonalds today that he was definitely going to stop by and get a burger– he deserves it!
It certainly sounds like he is done with the tennis grind and ready to move onto the next stage of his life, whatever that may be, but of course it’s never easy to say goodbye.
Here are a few more pictures, all courtesy of Melissa. The full album can be found on the Facebook page.