By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES -- There is no substitute for experience and that is what Xavier Malisse is counting on to capture his first ATP World Tour title in five years.
On Thursday, the 32-year-old from Belgium advanced to the quarterfinals of the Farmers Classic with his 6-4, 6-3 victory over Australian Matthew Ebden at the Los Angeles Tennis Center's historic Straus Stadium. It marked the furthest he has gone in the tournament since 2005 and Malisse is glad to be back at one of his favorite venues.
"I always like coming here," said Malisse, currently No. 72 in the South African Airways ATP singles rankings, who broke a four-year string of first-round exits in Los Angeles with his 6-4, 6-1 victory over qualifier and recent UCLA graduate Nicolas Meister. "I stay at a friend's house six or seven minutes away and we have a car so it's real easy getting here and it makes things more relaxing."
Malisse, known as the "X-Man" advanced all the way to the semifinals in his first trip to Los Angeles in 2001, losing to Pete Sampras, and he has been working on a new serve this week. It was on Thursday, as he fired eight aces against Ebden. He even hit balls up into the crowd after clinching his victory. He hopes his new serve will prove to be the "X-Factor" in taking his first ATP World Tour title in five years.
"I'm turning my shoulders a lot more to try to get more pop," said Malisse, the No. 5 seed who has a residence in Sarasota, Florida, but spends just as much time in his native Belgium. "In the first round of doubles I sort of reverted back to my old habits, but today I was serving so well that it allowed me to take more chances on his serve. Going forward, I just have to stick with this motion and visualize."
Malisse is the only Belgian to have been ranked in the top 20 on the ATP World Tour and achieved a career-high No. 19 ranking in August 2012. He won singles titles in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2005 and 2007 and a third in Chenai, India, in 2007. He also has nine runner-up finishes.
"It felt good to win and it's nice to be seeded, because you don't get the top guys the first couple rounds," said Malisse, who broke Ebden to open the match and broke again in the ninth game of the second set. "Experience means a lot and veterans tend to play the important points a little more safe."
Also advancing was sixth-seeded Australian Marinko Matosevic, who beat Tobias Kamke of Germany, 6-3, 1-6, 6-0, who reached the main draw in Los Angeles for the first time this year.
"The last time I played him I had four match points and lost, so this was a revenge match," said Matosevic, who called the Southern California weather "the best" and was happy not to have to qualify. "He caught fire in the second set and he has the ability to do that, but I lifted my percentage in the third and cut down on my errors."
Malisse also enjoys doubles because he thinks it improves his singles game. He has seven career doubles titles, including the 2004 French Open championship, which he won with countryman Olivier Rochus. He partnered with American Michael Russell to reach the final in Atlanta last week (losing to Ebden and Ryan Harrison) and two hours after Thursday's singles win, Malisse took the grandstand court with countryman Ruben Bemelmans to upset No. 1-seeded Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and American Scott Lipsky, 6-3, 7-5.
"I like playing doubles," Malisse said. "There's not much running, it's more about serving and returning. I don't think fatigue comes into play. I guess maybe by the end of the week it could, but if you're in condition it's not really an issue."
Meanwhile, over on the stadium court, Russell (the oldest player in the draw at age 34) was proceeding to stun top-seeded Frenchman Benoit Paire, 7-5, 6-4. Russell entered the week ranked No. 83 while Paire was ranked 50th.
"I'm not surprised because Michael (Russell) has been playing great as he showed getting to the finals with me last week and he has the experience," Malisse said. "Paire has improved a lot, but he's still only 23 and being a No. 1 seed you can feel more pressure sometimes."
Malisse will take on American Sam Querrey, the No. 2 seed, in a singles showdown Friday night.
In doubles, Malisse and Bemelmans could meet Querrey and two-time NCAA singles champion Steve Johnson in the semifinals. The Americans, who made the 16-team field as a wild card, knocked off fourth-seeded Ebden and Dominic Inglot of Great Britain, 6-3, 6-3. So Malisse may be seeing plenty of Querrey the next few days and knows his opponent will likely have the crowd on his side.
"He likes playing here, he's won here twice before and he's got a big game," Malisse said of Querrey. "Sam is tall, he serves huge and it's tough to play guys like that. I prefer playing guys who let you get in some rallies, but I know what's coming and I have to take advantage of my opportunities when they come."
Querrey has won both previous meetings, but if Friday's match is anything like their last, L.A. fans are in for quite a treat. The two hooked up for an instant classic in the third round at Wimbledon two years ago with Querrey prevailing 9-7 in the fifth set.
"We played at Queens and Wimbledon and tennis is different on grass," Malisse said of his encounters with Querrey. "Still, I'm going to have to put as many returns in play as I can and just play my game. If he's too good, he's too good."