Bjorkman halts the 'Phili Flyer'

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The Independent Online
The "Phili Flyer" continues to make good time without necessarily reaching the desired destination. Mark Philippoussis's mega-serve could not secure a place for him in the quarter-finals of the Lipton Championships here yesterday, although a twisted ankle in the opening game did not help the young Australian's cause against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, who defeated him 6-3, 6-4.

Generally outplayed by Bjorkman on the day, the 20-year-old Philippoussis will have to work harder on his groundstrokes. His opponents, meanwhile, will dread the time when the rest of his game synchronises with his bazooka serve.

Philippoussis registered serves of 140mph and 141mph during his third- round match against Wayne Ferreira on Sunday, and the Australian set an ATP Tour record of 142mph against Byron Black on 7 March.

So Philippoussis is now three speeds higher than Britain's Greg Rusedski, the previous record holder with a 139.8mph serve in Beijing last year.

As if his 6ft 4in frame were not enough of an advantage, Philippoussis uses a long-body racket of the type favoured by rather smaller players such as Michael Chang, Thomas Muster, Todd Woodbridge, and the precocious Martina Hingis.

The rackets come in two sizes, 29 inches and 32 inches from the top of the frame to the bottom of the handle (standard rackets are 27 inches). The International Tennis Federation has taken steps to restrict rackets to 29 inches by the year 2000.

But where will the big- serving be by then? "Hopefully it's not going to end," Philippoussis said. "I'm going to keep on trying to serve harder and harder."

Chang expects no relief from the challenge of attempting to return more of the same. "I think guys can hit harder for sure," he said, having consistently improved his own serve (his fastest is 130mph) to add a dimension to his counter-punching style and mental strength.

"For one thing, Mark knows if he were to string his tension a little looser he'd be able to hit harder. The flipside of the coin, if he does that, is that he's not going to have any control on the rest of his game.

"I think if you had a serving contest - just strictly serves, so guys didn't have to worry about hitting volleys or groundstrokes - they'd string their tension a lot looser and they'd be able to get a lot higher than that for sure."

Philippoussis recently participated in an experiment by Tennis magazine, which revealed that there is only an average difference of 4mph between a wooden racket and an oversized, extended synthetic racket.

"Obviously it's got a lot to do with technique," Philippoussis said. "Body weight into the serve is important. There's also technique and the rhythm on the serve. I've had a few serves with each racket. Obviously you can still hit a hard serve with a wooden racket. Obviously, you can't get the same consistency as with the other rackets. But you can certainly still crank it up."

So the record is at risk? "To tell you the truth, I felt I could have broken it on Sunday if I had had the new balls when there was a bit of wind down on one end of the court," he said.

Monica Seles became the first player to reach the semi-finals yesterday, although the fourth seed had some shaky moments before beating Irina Spirlea, of Romania, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. Seles hit two consecutive double-faults to lose serve when leading 4-2 in the final set and was relieved that Spirlea, the No 7 seed, became error-prone when trying to level the match.

It will be Seles' 62nd singles semi-final in 80 tournaments, and she has won 38 of the previous 61 - though usually by playing far better than in this one, her first event since breaking a finger last November.

"I need a little more consistency," Seles said. "I still don't feel I have the confidence that I should. I think that's just going to come by playing a lot of tennis. Physically, definitely I'm happy, because I'm not tired or anything like that. Playing every day keeps my mind busy, which, at this point, maybe is better.''

Her father, Karolj's, illness weighs on her mind. "It's really hard. It's hard because he's my coach, but he's also my dad. He's such a key part of my life, and he's much less of a part now. He told me that I have to do what I love to do. This is what I love to do. Obviously, it's a big change."

Greg Rusedski yesterday urged Tim Henman to decide for himself if he will play in Britain's Davis Cup tie with Zimbabwe next week. Henman is struggling with an elbow injury. Rusedski, who is also carrying a wrist injury, said: "I do have sympathy for Tim. He will have to listen to his doctor's advice and whatever the doctor thinks is right he will have to do. Only Tim knows how the injury is and he has to make the decision."