No retelling of Jennifer Capriati's phoenixlike ascent is complete, it seems, without a reference to her romantic uncoupling from her boyfriend of most of 2000, Belgian pro Xavier Malisse. Only in the absence of Malisse was Capriati able to metamorphose from a human cautionary tale into the winner of two Grand Slam singles titles—or so the stories go. "It's pretty funny to me how it's been written and talked about," says the ex-man, reluctantly discussing his least favorite topic. "I'm the bad guy. It's like, without me she would have done it all sooner."
Malisse, too, has embarked on a dramatic resurgence since his less-than-amicable split with Capriati last fall. Distracted by the relationship and pondering quitting tennis, he finished last year ranked No. 127. After shaking the Etch-a-Sketch and starting 2001 with a clean slate, he has improved nearly 90 spots in the rankings. Entering this week's Tennis Masters Series event in Cincinnati, he was No. 44, having beaten defending U.S. Open champ Marat Safin and 2001 Australian Open runner-up Arnaud Clement this summer. He has reached the semifinals or better at four events this year and is a dark horse for the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 27. "I'm only 21," he says in flawless English, "but it's like I've had two careers already."
Malisse plays effortless tennis. He has a forehand capable of leaving exit wounds and, befitting the son of a butcher, also deploys a deft slice to break up rallies. Because of his power and variety from the backcourt, he is a favorite practice partner of Andre Agassi's. "He's a great striker of the ball," says Agassi. "He's starting to keep it together in his head and put together some good wins. I consider him a real threat."
When he turned pro in 1998 at age 17, Malisse accompanied Safin and Lleyton Hewitt on the short list of can't-miss prospects. In his first ATP match he led Pete Sampras, then the best player in the world, 5-4 in the third set. Sampras won, but Malisse was ecstatic. "I was, like, Hey, I'm 17 and I almost beat Sampras," he says. "This is going to be easy."
Malisse bought a black BMW and put his career on cruise control. Hanging out with Capriati trumped fitness training and practicing. The ketchup he slathered on his fries was his lone vegetable, and he perfected his between-the-legs shot at the expense of his second serve. He also spent hours tinkering with new hairstyles and colorings. "I wanted to be like Dennis Rodman," he says sheepishly. "It was just a phase."
His similarities to the Worm extended to a highly combustible temper. At a junior event in Belgium, Malisse reacted to a questionable line call by wheeling the umpire's chair onto the court. "It wouldn't have been so bad if the umpire wasn't still in it," he says. "I was defaulted for that." The slightest dissonance—a bad draw, a missed forehand, even a late-arriving courtesy car—would destroy his equilibrium.
He also shared Rodman's fondness for carousing. Asked in an ATP questionnaire whom he would like to sit next to on a long flight, Malisse responded, "A coupla party girls." His ideal day? "Wake up at five in the afternoon so I could stay out all night."
Malisse's results last year left him plenty of time for both gallivanting and sleeping in. Time and again he would lose in qualifying, skip town and then wait a week before his next match. "X was gone before the big names got to a tournament, so he didn't get to see how they conduct themselves," says Malisse's new coach, David Felgate of Britain, who spent the past nine years mentoring Tim Henman. "He had the habits of a 20-year-old kid, not a professional player."
As his game has picked up, Malisse has discovered the reality of the tennis tour: the better one's results, the better the working conditions, the better one's results. A year ago Malisse was grinding out brutal qualifying matches and competing in challenger events in towns such as Binghamton, N.Y.—"the worst place in the world," he says. Now he typically stays in four-star hotels, gets massages after his matches and revels in his star perks. Last month, for instance, while in Los Angeles for an ATP tournament, he accepted a morning invitation to the Playboy Mansion. ("All the girls were asleep," he says.)
His romantic life has rebounded as well. Malisse's new steady is Katie Castermans, who works in the fashion industry in Belgium and gave him the silver ring he wears on the middle finger of his left hand. He calls and e-mails her from the road, but this time, he vows, his love life won't disrupt his career. "I've been a pro three years," he says. "But I'm just now figuring out what 'being a pro' really means."