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Philippoussis cleans up his act

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Posted: Fri September 11, 1998

 

Never mind little-known Thomas Johansson. Or clay court specialist Carlos Moya. Or erratic Magnus Larsson. The biggest surprise quarterfinalist at this year's U.S. Open was Mark Philippoussis.

It's been nearly three years since Philippoussis announced himself by serving Pete Sampras off the court in the third round of the 1996 Australian Open. Since then, the player nicknamed Scud for his explosive game, has been a 6'4" bundle of unfulfilled expectations. Tennis's erstwhile "next best thing" is nearly 22, and in his four years as a full-time pro, he has yet to crack the top 10, has won only five career titles, and fell out of the top 25 this year. Despite a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon, this year has been so disappointing for the Aussie that he made like a disgruntled NBA player and talked about quitting the sport to become an actor.

  Mark Philippoussis
After a masterful five-set win on Thursday, Philippousis had reason to celebrate.    (Eric Miller/REUTERS)
Philippoussis has also had his problems off the court. Beginning last year, he feuded with Australian Davis Cup team captain John Newcombe, when Newcombe refused to let the team's coach, Tony Roche, travel with Philippoussis to tournaments in Europe. Philippoussis deemed this particularly insensitive since his father, Nick, was battling cancer. With no apology from Newcombe forthcoming, Philippoussis opted out of Australia's Davis Cup tie against Zimbabwe.

After the Aussies were upset 3-2, Philippoussis was barely on speaking terms with countrymen Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. And Pat Rafter terminated their doubles partnership, essentially telling Philippoussis to grow up. What's more, Philippoussis has allegedly been told that if he bails on the next Davis Cup tie, he can forget about playing for Australia at the Sydney Olympics. For now Philippoussis is noncommittal. "When the year finishes, the subject will come up," he says.

Philippoussis is the hardest hitter on the Tour, bar none; problem is, he knows no way to play other than full-throttle. He bangs balls methodically and often without purpose, infusing his game with all the subtlety and guile of a lumberjack. Slices, angles and patience are supplanted by power, power and power. "He has so much talent," said another pro last month. "But he has to learn how to control it. Sometimes it's better to stand back and be patient than to whale away at everything."

It may have taken a while, but he's finally learning. With encouragement from his new brain trust—veteran coach Gavin Hopper and former Aussie Wimbledon champ Pat Cash—Philippoussis has leavened his power game with an unprecedented level of craftiness and calm. In a fifth-set tiebreaker against Johansson last night, Philippoussis served masterfully throughout, ventured to the net with unqualified success, and, most important, saved three points. "It's was definitely the biggest win of my career," he said after the 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 7-6 (12-10) marathon.

He's still two matches away from completely divesting himself of the "underachiever" tag. But reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal ought to put his acting career on hold for a while.

VOLLEYS: No joke, prior to last night's victory over Karol Kucera, Sampras had not beaten a player ranked in the top 10 this year ... Repeat semifinalist Lindsay Davenport has yet to lose more than five games in a single match. On Thursday she dispatched feisty Amanda Coetzer, 6-0, 6-4 ... Speaking of Davenport, regardless of how the weekend plays out, her Open won't be totally devoid of disappointment. After landing "total cutie" (her words) Jan-Michael Gambill as her mixed doubles partner, she had to back out because of a sore elbow ... Prior to this year, quarterfinalist Kucera had never won a round at the U.S. Open ... Belated memo to Venus Williams: knocking off Mary Pierce, particularly when you're seeded eight slots ahead of her, is hardly grounds for "raising the roof" ... Michael Chang, who held several match points against Moya before succumbing in five sets, has fallen out of the top 30 for the first time since 1989 ... Despite his disappointing loss to Philippoussis, Tim Henman has overtaken Greg Rusedski as the top-ranked British player.

 
Related information
Previous Jon Wertheim Columns
September 9: How low can Agassi go?
September 8: He's got the world on a string
September 7: Nobody's driving Miss Davenport
September 5: America's unlikely new tennis heartthrob
September 4: Youngster should make a Dent
September 3: A trio of uplifting showings
September 2: Capriati's sad tale continues
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