By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
Xavier Malisse has become a veteran’s veteran – 32 years old, with no sign of quit in him. The Belgian is competing in this week’s Farmers Classic, and while he did not make the Olympic cut, he is thrilled to be in Los Angeles. Staying at friend’s house, Malisse is enjoying the breezes that come off the Pacific when he’s not fighting it out at the tournament’s home at UCLA.
"It’s great atmosphere and that's why I’m here," said Malisse, who defeated Australia’s Matt Ebden on Thursday and reached the quarterfinals. "I really like it."
This is Malisse 14th year on tour. He is ranked No. 72 in the world, well off of his career-high of No. 19 that he achieved in 2002, when he reached the Wimbledon semifinals. Yet Malisse is pretty satisfied that he’s back in the mix.
That was not the case in 2008-2009 when he suffered a severe right wrist injury and was forced to go back to tennis’s minor leagues.
"I’m really happy," Mailsse said. "It’s tough to play [USTA Pro Circuit] Challengers at the end of the world but I wanted to give it one more go. Some Challengers are okay, but others aren’t.
"It’s a mindset. If you go there and are not prepared mentally and have some bad food, stay in a bad hotel in a bad area and you can’t handle it, then it’s better to stop. But I got my courage together to do it. It can be tough to find motivation, but once you get it then you feel you want to do it. I got through it pretty good and if you win a tournament, you’ve got your confidence back."
By 2010, the all-courter Malisse was showing signs of life again. Last year, he showed that he had his game back by finishing in the top 50 for the first time since 2006. He reached the final of Chennai, the semifinals of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the quarters of Metz and Vienna, and the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Malisse played constantly -- which is why his results fell off during the hard court portion of the summer -- yet he got his rhythm back and is now no longer concerned about making ATP main draws. He’s only won three ATP career singles titles (two of them in Delray Beach), but he’s beaten plenty of good players in his career. Even past the age of 30, he still feels very competitive.
"It was nice to be back in the top 50 after you've been down to 350 in the world," said Malisse, who owns a home in Florida. "It’s a long road, but when you get back there, it’s a good feeling because you know you've worked hard to get there."
As Malisse says, tennis keeps getting more and more physical, as players have to get to harder shots struck by sometimes larger and certainly very fit men. Back in 1998, when he first started playing pros, Malisse qualified for the now-defunct indoor tournament in Philadelphia and took the great American Pete Sampras to 7-5 in third set.
The Belgian says that back then, you didn't always have to play your best to qualify. That’s not the case now.
"If you don’t play well you are going home," he said. "Everyone is in good physical shape and the field is so wide. There was more variety back then, but the game wasn’t as fast as it is now. Everyone hits hard – even in qualies."
It was in 2002 when Malisse came to world attention at Wimbledon, where he upset Britain’s Greg Rusedski and 1996 champion Richard Krajicek to reach the semifinals, where he fell in tight five -setter to Argentina’s David Nalbandian.
While he didn’t top that performance at this year’s Wimbledon, he did have his best Grand Slam showing of 2012, upsetting seeds Fernando Verdasco and Gilles Simon before going down to another member of the "30-and-over" crowd: Eventual champ Roger Federer, whom he calls a friend.
"[Roger] can do anything and everything with the ball, but even for him it’s tougher than it was year ago. But to get back to No. 1 again – that what makes him all the more special."
After L.A., Malisse will play the Emirate Airline US Open Series’ Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and then go to Belgium for two weeks to rehab and work out. He’ll return to the U.S. and Series play at the Winston-Salem Open in North Carolina before heading to the US Open, where in the past four years he has lost in the first round. However, he has reached the fourth round in New York on three occasions, in 2001, 2003 (when he fell to eventual champion Andy Roddick) and in 2005.
Malisse would love to win a few rounds this year. Should he get back into the Round of 16, who knows -- a big step into the final eight is possible.
"Once you get the confidence, anything can happen."