The future of Belgian men's tennis is an 18-year-old butcher's son who calls himself X-Man and hopes to become the sport's Dennis Rodman. "I like the Worm," says Xavier Malisse, who has dyed his hair electric plum, persimmon and avocado, among other subtle shades. "It's cool how Rodman changes the color of his hair and gets in players' minds."
In his ATP debut, in Philadelphia in February, Malisse got in the mind of the world's No. 1 player. Though he was as green as Belgian endive, X-Man came within two points of beating Sampras before falling 4-6,6-3,7-5. "I guess I got overconfident," says the world's No. 423.
Growing up in the town of Kortrijk, Malisse worked in his dad's beenhouwerij, but he did not hone his stroke hacking brisket. "My father never let me cut meat," he says. "He thought it was too dangerous. I just prepared the salads."
Last summer, Malisse enrolled at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he hit one day with Marcelo Rios, who offered this assessment: "I've never seen a forehand that big."
His hair can be equally star-ding. Malisse, who says he started tinting it this year "just to do something crazy," played Davis Cup doubles in a hue he calls super blond. (He and Johan Van Herck lost to Courier and Todd Martin.) "Next year at Wimbledon, my hair may be green and purple," he warns. "There are lots of colors in the supermarket."
For Li, Timing Is Everything
As she continues her steady climb up the rankings, Fang Li might want to invest in a daily planner. Li, perhaps the best tennis player ever from mainland China, had to be reminded by the WTA that she was in the singles as well as the doubles of a USTA Challenger tournament in Mahwah, N.J. "When they told me I was in the singles draw, it was O.K. with me," said Li, who two years ago moved from Hunan province to Queens less than an hour from Mahwah. "It's good because I can go home every day."
Relying on penetrating ground strokes and a deceptively strong serve, Li, 25, cruised through her half of the draw then got another surprise: The winner of last Friday's final between Li and Amy Frazier would receive an automatic spot in the A&P Classic, an exhibition tournament also going on in Mahwah (and featuring players such as Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna, who had been lured to the event with six-figure appearance fees). "No one told me," Li said. "Well, it's good practice."
Li's confusion about her schedule continued. Thinking that her match with Frazier was at 2:30 p.m., instead of 11:30 a.m., Li arrived at 1, by which time tournament officials had declared Frazier the winner. When Li was given the news, she began screaming and crying. "Maybe my English is not good," she said. "I don't know who made the mistake."
The situation grew even more preposterous. Frazier said that she, too, hadn't realized that the winner of die Challenger tournament was supposed to advance to the exhibition; citing a "bad hand," she declined to move on.