If you are like me, you predicted that Martina Hingis might get into the top ten and could even get to the year-end championships (the top eight players are invited), but she would not fare well against today’s top power hitters. We were both wrong. Hingis took out Maria Sharapova, 6-3, 6-1, in the semi-finals of the Pan Pacific Open. That would qualify as a drubbing. Hingis lost to Elena Dementieva in the final but here she is, beating top five players with an early 21st century game instead of the 2006 version of it. She has more power than she did when she retired but her second serve is still a creampuff. Mark it up as a victory for court intelligence over raw power.

What is up with Sharapova by the way, does she need a new coach as much as Andy Roddick does? She’s been bothered by a pectoral muscle problem for some time but she might be just as bothered by her split with longtime coach Robert Lansdorp.

We have a few choices here. Since we don’t have footage of the women’s play, we could look at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships in Florida, or the Movistar Open in Vina del Mar, Chile, both men’s events, or we could watch the 1947 Davis Cup highlights. With a name like Movistar, I can guarantee that Serena Williams would have turned up if it had been a WTA event. As it is, Movistar is a clay court tournament and it’s a little too early in the year for to watch two clay court specialists slog it out on dirt.

Malisse is the anti-Federer. Instead of winning 24 straight finals, Malisse is 1 for 8.

Let’s go to Delray Beach then and watch Tommy Haas play Xavier Malisse. Malisse is the anti-Federer. Instead of winning 24 straight finals, Malisse is 1 for 8. However, that single win was right here in this tournament last year. As for Haas, he’s on a tear. He beat Federer at Kooyong and almost beat him in the Australian Open.

Haas and Malisse have similar games: they both hug the baseline, hit the ball very hard and serve well. Even though Haas has beaten Malisse 8 out of the 11 times they’ve played and Haas has 8 titles to 1 for Malisse, the gap is not so much in their skills as it is in their heads. Both players have bad tempers and lose their way if they get upset. Malisse was actually suspended from the tour for four weeks after throwing a ball at a linesperson, verbally abusing an official and kicking over a chair. And he was ahead in the match! Imagine what could happen if he’s losing. Malisse is more mentally deficient in comparison to Haas and that can make a big difference in match results. If Malisse blows up today, it looks good for Haas.

Malisse had trouble right away; he had to fight off break points in his first service game after missing 5 straight first serves. In his third service game, he was called for a foot fault then hit a ball long in frustration and lost his serve. Uh oh.

In the next game, Haas hit consecutive inside out forehands that, according to Malisse, were out. Malisse turned to the linesman and yelled, “Just tell me, yes or no, do you see that mark?” (referring to the mark left by Haas’s ball). The linesman replied, “No, I don’t see that mark, ” and Malisse shot back at him, “Then you shouldn’t be on the court!” The linesman quietly mouthed the words to himself again, “No, I don’t see that mark, ” as if to convince himself that he was right.

As he walked to his seat on the turnover, Malisse smashed his racket and got a code violation from the chair umpire. Haas was probably feeling pretty good about his chances at this point.

But Malisse didn’t self-destruct. With Haas serving for the set at 5-3, Malisse hit a beautiful running forehand for a winner and managed to get a break point. Haas won the set, 6-3, but only after hitting a number of balls to the corners before Malisse finally popped one up in the air that Haas could put away.

Haas is not immune to blowups but he was smart enough to know that he had the upper hand so he limited his protest to a string of mumbles when Malisse served an ace that he thought was long early in the set. Unfortunately, it didn’t help him avoid another pitfall of mental warfare: the letdown. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, he hit three unforced errors on his usually solid one-handed backhand and was out of position to hit an inside out forehand to lose his serve. The break gave Malisse the second set, 6-3.

In the first game of the third set, Malisse thought another Haas ace was long, and so did I, but he already had a code violation so there was only so much protesting he get away with. That was a good thing because Malisse stayed focused and started retrieving the balls that Haas was sending to the corners. With Haas serving at 3-3, Malisse hit a rocket backhand down the line for a winner and Haas looked at him in shock, “Since when do you smash backhand winners?” Malisse is famous for ending up in the ad court doubles alley to avoid having to hit his backhand.

Malisse broke serve in that game then experienced his own letdown and gave the break right back. I’m tellin’ ya, this game is mostly mental.

In the third set tiebreaker, Haas displayed a mental skill that turned out to be the clincher: he played the big points well. By this time the wind was swirling and both players had trouble serving but Haas made big plays when he had to. At 4-4 in the tiebreaker, he hit a serve and volley to win the point then hit a running forehand to get his first match point. On his second match point, Malisse hit an error after a string broke in his racket and the title belonged to Haas, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5).

Malisse is now 1-9 in finals. He can’t do much about broken strings, but the title could have been his if he’d held onto that third set service break. That’s not a big mental adjustment to make but it would make a big difference in his career.

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