Belgium’s Rochus raises a racket playing tennis giants
Diminutive veteran makes some noise against big boys with court smarts
METRO VANCOUVER — Veteran Belgian tennis star Olivier Rochus never sweated the small stuff because he knew he had the right stuff.
At 5-5, Rochus is the most vertically challenged player on the ATP Tour. At 5-5, he has less reach than all his opponents. At 5-5, he has less power for his service game. He is a compact car on a court filled with stretch limos. But none of this has stopped Rochus, who once reached No. 24 in the world, has two singles titles on his resume and a French Open doubles crown.
“Facing taller players has always been like that for me,” Rochus said Friday afternoon as he waited out the rain at the $200,000 Odlum Brown VanOpen tournament at Hollyburn Country Club.
“When I was under-12, under-14, under-16, under-18, I was always the smallest guy in my age group. So that’s the way it is. My dad is like me and my two brothers. The Rochus family is pretty small.”
So Olivier, born in the city of Namur, had to develop other weapons to combat the height disadvantage. Now 32, he has been on the circuit since 1999 and won more than $4 million. He never really contemplated a career in another sport more suited to his size, perhaps soccer, skiing, or gymnastics.
His family lived next to a tennis club so they played tennis. His older brother Christophe became a pro but Olivier wasn’t certain, at least when he was younger, that he could make a living on the circuit. Eventually he came to realize he had a chance.
“When I was young, I never thought about this kind of career,” he said. “I thought I need to finish high school and then, you know, then maybe I can try tennis for one or two years and we’ll see how it goes. One year later, I was like in the top 100 and then everything went pretty well. So it was nice.”
His survival on court became a matter of mobility and guile.
“I have other qualities than the big hitters,” he explained. “I move better than most of the guys and I have to change the pace and be smart on the court. So I have to play it differently but it’s always been this way. I think I’ve done pretty well all these years.”
Rochus is currently ranked 146th in the world and is fourth among Belgian players. He reached the quarter-final round in the VanOpen and was scheduled to meet Britain’s Daniel Evans on Friday before the rains came.
They’ll now meet Saturday after tournament officials postponed all quarter-final matches on both the men’s and women’s sides of the draw. The finals are still scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
VanOpen tournament director Ryan Clark is a big Rochus fan and admires what the Belgian has been able to achieve despite the height issue. Canada’s top two players, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, are 6-5 and 6-4 respectively, for example.
“Tennis on the men’s side tends to be a sport of giants, especially on the hard courts,” Clark noted. “The taller players obviously have an advantage with the angles they can get on their serves so a guy like Olivier, at his height, has had to develop a lot of other weapons and tools. Obviously speed is one thing he has. He moves incredibly well. He also anticipates incredibly well and has unbelievably good hands.
“He’s able to mix and match power to touch. He can change speeds much like a good baseball pitcher does. He doesn’t just try to hit everything hard. He has a good mastery of spins, speeds and depth.”
Rochus isn’t certain how much longer he’ll stay on tour. He thinks he might stick around for one more year and then maybe look to do something in the tennis world.
“I don’t know yet what I will do,” he said. “Maybe coach a little bit, maybe work a little for the Davis Cup, maybe help the young guys coming up. But I’m not thinking too much about that now. I’m trying to focus on the last year I have and to try to enjoy it.
“I am enjoying Vancouver this week,” he added. “It is my first time here and I love the place. It’s so beautiful with the view and the nature. It’s one of the most beautiful place I’ve seen in the world.”
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