Brilliant Belgian

Xavier Malisse spent a major part of the week in the shadows of the Spaniards, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya. But in the end, he came out blazing, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Xavier Malisse has had his share of drama on the circuit. In the 2002 Wimbledon semifinals, his extended disappearance from the court for a respiratory problem agitated David Nalbandian a great deal. But the Belgian also has a game good enough to agitate and trouble his adversaries as he showed against Andre Agassi in the 2005 US Open and Roger Federer in the 2006 Rogers Cup. However, a big win over one of the top-ranked players had eluded for some time. But that changed after the 2007 Chennai Open, with Malisse playing possibly his best tennis throughout the week.

Malisse, the tournament's third seed, was always known for his whiplash forehand and quick legs. He used both to perfection, especially against Rafael Nadal, in the semifinal. His tactics against the top-seed were brilliant. He was aggressive, hit the ball hard and came to the net often, which negated Nadal's strength.

"I have never beaten a player of Nadal's calibre in my career; it's a big moment. The win has done a lot of good to my confidence," said Malisse after his semifinal win.

The Belgian spent a major part of the week in the shadows of the Spaniards, Nadal and Carlos Moya, after David Nalbandian's stay came to a quick end. Despite being the third seed, and worthy of being regarded as one of the favourites, Malisse's recent form made him nothing more than a player to watch out for.

Staying away from the spotlight might have possibly helped him focus on his game, not having to worry about scribbling on scraps and endlessly posing for lensmen. The quality of his tennis was refreshing and he seemed the only one playing at his best, after David Nalbandian made a first-round exit due to tendonitis, and Paradorn Srichaphan's wrist pushed him out as well. Rafael Nadal never looked 100 percent, and Moya was clearly feeding off crowd support.

Runner-up Stefan Koubek played high quality tennis till the final, ousting three seeds, Srichaphan, Julien Benneteau and Carlos Moya. Unfortunately for the Austrian, in the final he had to face a rampaging Malisse, who was serving well and hitting his forehands even better. His victory in the doubles boosted his volleying, which looked shaky early on.

"I remained positive throughout the week and everything worked well. My serves bailed me out of difficult situations. Also, the doubles matches I played here sharpened my game. I feel great to start the year with the Chennai Open win. For seven years I have been in the top-50, but this is the first time I'm starting a new season with a title. My coach (David Felgate) is helping me a lot, and our combination is working very well," said Malisse, who won his second title in 10 finals.

The Chennai Open also threw up a surprise in Karan Rastogi, who beat Thiago Alves in the first round, and played his heart out against Nadal in the second. The performance should help boost his confidence, after his rankings went up to 371, from 480.

Malisse, meanwhile, will be high on confidence for the rest of the season. "It really feels good. I haven't had many opportunities in my career so far. I'm confident of winning more titles this year. I'm also aiming to finish in the top-20 at the end of this season. There is still a long way to go. I have to concentrate well in each tournament to deliver my best and more importantly I should stay fit," he said.

The results

Singles final: Xavier Malisse (Belgium) bt Stefan Koubek (Austria) 6-1, 6-3.

Doubles final: Malisse & Dick Norman (Belgium) bt Rafael Nadal & Bartolome Salva-Vidal (Spain) 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4).