Xavier Malisse is clean-shaven at the moment. This is because the young Belgian only shaves if he loses. "I'm superstitious," he says, "so when I'm winning, I let my beard grow." This week, he was knocked out in straight sets in the second round of Queen's by the Australian Lleyton Hewitt, and there is not a hair to be found on his face.
In normal circumstances, the defeat of an up-and-coming 20-year-old on his least favourite surface would barely warrant a mention. But then these are not normal circumstances. For the first time since he burst on to the Wimbledon scene six years ago, the British favourite, Tim Henman, will not be flanked by his long-time coach and confidant, David Felgate. The two split in early April and, while Henman is intensifying his search for a suitable replacement, Felgate is entering his third month in partnership with Malisse.
Results have been impressive since they started working together. The Belgian reached the final at Atlanta, and his world ranking has climbed from the mid-80s to 56 in the latest ATP listings. Now Felgate's first target getting his player into the top 50 in time for the US Open is likely to be reached two months ahead of schedule.
Yet despite Malisse's impressive progress, one topic continues to dominate any interview with him in this country. Forget the fact that he used to go out with Jennifer Capriati, the current Australian and French Open champion, what the English are really interested in is his latest working relationship.
"I guess I knew this would happen," Malisse says. "But the attention doesn't really bother me. People were always going to talk about what David achieved with Tim, but, so far as I'm concerned, that is in the past and all I'm focusing on is my own career."
There is no malice from Malisse when he says that he is not interested in Henman's results. Felgate's new protégé holds no grudges against his coach's old star, it is just that he wants to build a reputation of his own. "Tim's a nice guy," he says, "but it's not like we talk all the time. He's got his life and I've got mine."
Malisse is just one of Belgium's impressive young crop, which includes the Rochus brothers, Olivier and Chris-tophe, Gilles Elseneer, as well as the high-flying women players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, who played each other in the French Open semi-finals two weeks ago. The Belgians' progress is all the more noteworthy because the country's two federations, one Flemish and one French, have been at loggerheads for more than 20 years. Belgium has a population of just 10 million, no more than 6,000 courts, and an annual budget of £500,000, yet this tiny country somehow manages to produce world-class players.
"He's got some talent and you're going to see a lot of him," said Pete Sampras after beating the then 17-year-old Malisse in 1998. In the event, he failed to make the immediate leap from the junior to the senior tour. Malisse, who started playing at the age of five before progressing to Antwerp's national centre of excellence and finishing his junior education at the Nick Bollettieri camp in Florida, now admits that he was not only struggling physically, but mentally as well.
"I was immature at 16 or 17," he says. "I had no idea what was going on and I think I lost the interest a little bit. Guys like Lleyton [Hewitt] and Marat [Safin] handled the pressure better than I did. It was not until September last year, when I started to ask myself probing questions like what am I doing, and am I going to keep doing this for the next 10 years, that I realised I loved the sport and wanted to get better."
Felgate's arrival could not have been timed any better. "It has always been a mental thing for me," Malisse explains. "I know I have the shots, it's just that I've needed the focus. If I know where I want to go, I feel good. If I have no goals, I will just play and not believe in myself. That where David has been great. It was a little awkward in the first two weeks, but we're getting used to each other, developing an understanding.
"I'm sure that's why the results are coming. David is a really experienced coach and I fully trust him on and off court. He seems to know how to get the best out of a player and I'm not at all surprised he did so well with Tim."
Felgate, for his part, may have changed horses, but his methods remain the same. As ever, pragmatism is the watchword. "Xavier needs a lot of work," the British coach says, "and only time will tell how good he is going to be. I'm not going to say he'll be this or that, as I didn't with Tim. We are giving it until the US Open, which will be time enough to know if we like each other and we can help each other. All I know is that Xavier has this burning desire. His eyes light up at the thought of big matches."
Big matches such as a Malisse-Henman encounter in the first round at Wimbledon? "I'm not that superstitious," the Belgian smiles.Reuse content