Underdogs are a very dangerous species in the world of professional tennis. They do the damage when least expected. On Saturday, at the Nungambakkam Stadium, Xavier Malisse shone under the arc lights as he dumped top seed Rafael Nadal 6-4, 7-6 (7/4) to enter the Chennai Open final. He now faces Stefan Koubek who sunk the ageing Spanish armada, Carlos Moya, 6-3, 6-1 in a one-sided semi-final.
For the Nadal fans, who had packed the stadium, there was only grief at the end of the contest. They just could not digest their hero getting beaten by the 6 feet 1 inch tall Belgian. Such was the intensity with which Malisse played that Nadal almost got stifled. For once, the Spaniard, who loves to stroke hard and deep, looked a mere mortal.
There was just no punch in Nadal’s shots, while on the other hand Malisse went about the destruction job like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Terminator.
The Belgian seized the initiative and kept the momentum going right through the contest lasting two hours. He serving hard and the bazooka forehand was a revelation.
The Florida-based player’s forehand would surely make for a good case study. He has a huge backswing but the racquet head acceleration is quick and he hits the ball very hard.
To match a player like Nadal in baseline exchanges is tough and Malisse proved he was the master. He showed that despite a 0-2 record against Nadal, he was not going to get overawed despite Nadalmania reaching its peak on Saturday.
Malisse’s court coverage was a revelation as his muscular legs carried him effortlessly. And in a match where quick sorties to the net were not in short supply, Malisse showed he was in the zone on Saturday.
Malisse got an early break in the first set to go 2-1 up when he hit a backhand cross-court winner. Nadal was under pressure from that very moment even though the fans continued with the "Come on Rafa" chants till the very end. To be sure, Malisse did not enjoy any crowd support, but it didn't really matter for him.
There were tight situations in the second set, and in two successive service games, Malisse faced a total of six set points. But then, this was Malisse's day. Few survive set points against Nadal and Malisse did the unthinkable.
"I played good today. This is a big win for me and I think being aggressive helped,” said Malisse.
But did he take the match lightly? “You can never win easily against Nadal. I took my chances and it worked,” said Malisse.
Was fitness a factor? “I have been working hard in the off-season. I did a lot of gym and weights,” the third seed added.
As Nadal slammed a return into the net to lose the second set tie-break and with that the match, a whole lot of female fans started weeping. Rafa had perhaps let them down. “I wasn’t playing my best tennis today. I was trying my best and giving it my 100 per cent. But my confidence wasn’t there,” said Nadal.
Does that mean he is low on confidence heading into the Australian Open? "Next week, I am playing in Sydney and will try to get my confidence back,” added the Spaniard.
Ageing hero departs
For players like Stefan Koubek, coming to India has always been fruitful. The 30-year-old reached the semifinals last September in the Mumbai ATP Tour event where he lost to Tomas Berdych.
The bearded player knew he had his chances against Moya in the semifinal. The Spaniard’s best tennis days are behind him, but such is Moya’s love for Chennai, that he will keep coming here again and again knowing fully that he might not be able to win the title anymore.
A loss in the semifinals is not an embarrassment, but for all those who have seen Moya triumph here, this was not really an exciting day. More so, because he struggled with his serve right through.
Results (Semifinals): Xavier Malisse bt Rafael Nadal 6-4, 7-6 (7/4); Stefan Koubek bt Carlos Moya 6-3, 6-1.