Xavier Malisse is the king of Delray Beach tennis.
A two-time champion and five-time finalist, Malisse has won more matches than any player in the 20-year history of the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships.
The 32-year-old Belgian added to his collection on a blustery Monday afternoon with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Colombian challenger Alejandro Falla in the first round. It improved the eighth-seeded Malisse’s tournament record to 26-10.
So what’s the reason for his success? Malisse, who lives in Sarasota, said it’s familiarity.
“You take the car and you’re here in three hours,” said Malisse, who won tournament championships in 2005 and 2007. “I know the people, the courts fit me good, and after so many years, you just become accustomed to it. I feel like I’m home, relaxing, doing my thing and just coming out for a match.”
Earlier Monday, 2010 tournament champ Ernests Gulbis played his way into the singles field by winning his last qualifying match, beating Denys Molchanov 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4. Gulbis will face James Blake today at 12:30 p.m.
In the featured match late Monday, No. 3 seed Sam Querrey defeated fellow American Michael Russell, who could not finish the second set because of a left leg injury. Querrey, who was on the court for 44 minutes, won 6-2, 2-2.
Malisse, No. 50 in the ATP rankings, was once considered among men’s tennis up-and-coming young players. His breakthrough moment came as a 21-year-old in 2002 when he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, losing there to David Nalbandian. That performance elevated Malisse to a career-high ranking of No. 19 in the world.
It never got any better than that for Malisse. He won singles and doubles titles in two of his first three tournaments in 2007 — including the Delray Beach event — but a right wrist injury sent him tumbling down the world rankings. Malisse’s 2007 title at Delray was his last in singles play.
In tennis years, Malisse is an old man. Retirement is right around the corner, but Malisse said he’s holding it off as long as possible.
“You go out there and you think, ‘This might be the last year,’ ” Malisse said. “But I never thought I would be [ranked] No. 50 right now. I feel like I’m still playing good. I’m hanging in there.”
Malisse is certainly doing that. He reached the quarterfinals of the Auckland and San Jose tournaments this season and defeated Falla on Monday with relative ease.
“I’m not so much on rankings anymore,” Malisse said. “It’s nice to play semis and quarters — maybe try to get to another final and win one more [title] on a good day. That’s where I want to be.”
Malisse is looking to advance past the second round of the Delray Beach ITC for the first time since 2007. Aside from winning in 2005 and 2007, Malisse was also a finalist in 1999, 2001 and 2006. On Monday, Malisse had to endure windy conditions that included light rain.
“You got to adjust,” Malisse said. “It was the same thing for the both of us. At least the [temperature] dropped a little, which was nice because yesterday I was practicing and it was brutal.”