Rochus Reflects: "I Couldn’t Ask For A Better Career With My Size"
Olivier Rochus announces his retirement from tennis.
Tennis is a game of inches.
The smallest margins can often dictate the outcome of a match, as a forehand clips the back edge of the baseline, a kick serve launches just beyond the returner’s reach, and a drop shot clings to the net before dribbling over.
An inch can be the difference between winning and losing. Apparently, no one told Olivier Rochus.
On Thursday, in front of a full house in his home tournament of Mons—the Ethias Trophy—the 5’6” Belgian bid farewell to professional tennis. Not an empty seat was to be found at the Lotto Mons Expo, as he fell to Gerald Melzer in the first round.
Throughout his 15-year career, Rochus proved that height is not proportional to heart and he conducted himself with the spirit and charisma of a champion every time he stepped on the court. The second-shortest titlist in the Open Era, only behind 5’4” Angel Gimenez, he is also one of just six players to win a maiden ATP World Tour title on debut, at Palermo 2000.
At age 17, Rochus won the 1998 Wimbledon boys’ doubles crown alongside Roger Federer, defeating Michael Llodra and recently retired Andy Ram. Federer remarked that he was one of the toughest competitors he’s faced and is proud to have shared the court with him earlier in their careers.
"Olivier is the first international junior I remember," Federer reflected to ATPWorldTour.com at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. "We played Belgium in a team cup and it was him and Xavier Malisse. He was always a great player. Had the best, most beautiful one-hander on tour.
"I have a lot of memories of Olivier. Clearly when we won junior Wimbledon together in 1998 and also winning Roehampton together the week before. We practised a lot of times together. On tour we had the pleasure of playing against each other a few times. It's always sad when you see somebody go out, especially someone you've known for 20 years. I wish him all the best."
In a sport where taller players generate seemingly effortless supremacy on serve and benefit from towering groundstroke trajectories, Rochus defied the odds, establishing his own brand of power tennis. Wielding a potent, compact ground game, the right-hander hurled his 143 lb. frame into every shot. Relying on consistency and agility to stay in points, he was a dogged, unremitting competitor whose tenacious defence rattled even the most accomplished players.
A two-time ATP World Tour champion, also triumphing in Munich in 2006, the right-hander would fight for 13 victories over Top 10 opposition, including wins over Carlos Moya, Novak Djokovic and Marat Safin.
Following a four-set defeat to Rochus at Wimbledon 2002, Safin remarked: “It has nothing to do with whether you're short or not. He has beautiful touch. He's fast and he has great anticipation. He's a player that you have to beat him. You cannot just come on the court and say, ‘You are small, I am big, I have to win’.”
“I tried to take the ball on the rise, as early as possible,” Rochus told ATPWorldTour.com from his home in Dion-Valmont. “I tried to dictate the points, to run and to fight and be strong. I knew I could beat them. I beat Karlovic, Ancic and Ljubicic and many other tall players. I was not intimidated.”
The former World No. 24 is one of the most decorated men’s tennis players to hail from Belgium. He amassed 238 tour-level match wins and reached 10 singles finals, while boasting a 7-3 record in title matches on the ATP Challenger Tour. A strong grass-court player, one of his most memorable moments actually came on the clay of Roland Garros in 2004, when he and countryman Xavier Malisse claimed the doubles crown.
“When I was young, with my size, everyone was telling me it was going to be too tough. When I was 16, they were saying it was going to be too hard. I went to 24th in the world (in the Emirates ATP Rankings), reached 10 finals, I beat so many top-ranked players and stayed there for more than 10 years. I spent 10-12 years in the Top 100. I went to three Olympics. When I look back, I cannot believe it’s me who did all of this. I couldn’t expect a better career with my size. It was hard but I think I did a pretty good job.”
Rochus’ last tour-level match win came in dramatic fashion, needing five sets to clinch a crucial doubles rubber for Belgium in a Davis Cup World Group Play-off victory over Ukraine last month, alongside Ruben Bemelmans.
“It’s a little strange. I’ve been playing tennis since I’m six years old and now it’s over. It’s weird and it’s going to feel a little empty at the beginning. Tennis was my life. But I finished in a good way, with the win in Davis Cup and now (at home) in Mons.
“A lot of friends and family (came out), and all my old coaches and my fitness coaches,” Rochus added, referring to his farewell week in Mons. “It was a very good atmosphere and a very emotional week. Everything started for me in Mons. That’s where I went to the tennis centre to train. I have a lot of memories there. I spent 10 years of my life in Mons. It was very nice to finish there and play doubles with Steve (Darcis).”
Rochus was only 19 years old when he won his first ATP World Tour title in Palermo and he recognises the strong push by Belgian young guns today. “With the rise of David (Goffin), what he’s achieved this year is amazing. Kimmer (Coppejans) also just won a Challenger and is almost in the Top 100. For a small country like Belgium, we have some good young ones. They need to work hard. There is talent and we’ll see.
“Maybe I will coach with the [Belgian Tennis] Federation. I hope I can bring my experience and the way I play the game to some younger players and help them.”
Rochus could not identify a single shining moment of his career, but acknowledged that his run to the Round of 16 at the 2004 US Open, toppling a pair of seeded opponents in No. 27 Mario Ancic and No. 3 Carlos Moya, was special. In the third round, he rallied from a set down against Moya to win 7-5 in the fifth.
“I had some very nice victories, over Magnus Norman, Marat Safin and Djokovic. I had some great memories in Auckland (runner-up in 2005, ‘12) too. It’s tough to say just one. Winning a Grand Slam with Xavier was special too. I’ve had many great memories and moments.”
It would be Rochus’ body that would eventually let him down, as the Belgian underwent shoulder surgery five years ago, followed by hip surgery in 2013. He says that despite the injuries, he has no regrets and is looking forward to the next chapter of his life.
“The hip surgery was a big thing. The year before it, I didn’t play much. Without it, I think I could still compete. It’s very tough and painful to recover now. It was getting too tough for me, but I’m very happy with the way it ended and I’m going to move forward. I’m very passionate. I love to compete. I’m going to miss the game.”