Exit Sampras, enter a new hero

Australian Open: American giant falls from world No 1 perch as young pretender Philippoussis displays awesome power; Bud Collins in Melbourne sees a home boy kick up a storm
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The Independent Online
THUNDERSTORMS necessitated the closing of the Flinders Park roof last night, but a teenager with Greek origins, a Hercules in shorts called Mark Philippoussis, nevertheless raised the rafters with serving and shotmaking that seemed to come straight from Mount Olympus.

Blown away, and out of the Australian Open, by the explosions from Philippoussis's racket was another of Greek blood by the name of Pete Sampras, 6-4 7-6 7-6, a result that shook the tournament and, at least temporarily, evicted Sampras from his perch on top of the world rankings. At the moment, with the third round completed,Thomas Muster has taken over as No 1. But Andre Agassi could regain the top spot by progressing further than the Austrian in this tournament.

Seldom has a player of Sampras's stature been so thoroughly overwhelmed. Considering the situation, a major championship, the greatness of Sampras and the greenness of Philippoussis (ranked No 304 a little over a year ago having won no titles), it was one of the more stunning results of the open era.

"I never had a sniff," Sampras said, shaking his head after the two hour 14 minutes ordeal that must have made him feel like a slow-moving duck in a shooting gallery. "There was nothing I could do. I didn't play badly, though I didn't serve that well, but I did hold every [service] game but one.

"You figure in a best-of-five match that your opponent will have a letdown somewhere, but he didn't. I couldn't believe he'd maintain that consistency. He had a great night."

Ace after ace - 29 of them in 17 service games - poured down on Sampras, who was seeking but finding no cover from the one-man thunderstorm, a 6ft 4in 19-year-old who grew up five miles away in the western suburb of Williamstown. A handsome dark-haired offspring of Greek immigrants, Philippoussis fired 34 other winners to Sampras's 27. The outgunned Sampras served merely five aces.

Saturday night fever gripped Melbourne as the two hit men collided. The house was filled with 13,067 screaming Australians, and TV ratings were expected to reach record highs as dreams of empire stirred again in the Antipodes. Not since Pat Cash, overseeing these proceedings from a TV commentary box, thrashed Ivan Lendl in the 1987 Wimbledon final had an Australian made such an impression in the game this country used to own.

Three-times Wimbledon champion John Newcombe, the Australian Davis Cup captain, sat with his eyes happily glazed in the first row, knowing that his own huge, wooden-racketed serves were mere taps compared with the booming Philippoussis deliveries that sped in regularly at around 125mph. Newcombe laughed: "I'd like to have had some of that 25-1 the bookies were giving against a straight-set win for Mark."

But there was more, much more, to No 40-ranked Philippoussis than the serve, mighty and unerringly accurate as it was. His groundstrokes were massive, each swat inciting the crowd to joyful moans and roars. He pressured Sampras constantly, assaulting the American's second serves en route to the net where he delivered artful volleys. He permitted Sampras only two break points - in the fifth and seventh games of the second set - only to wrench them away with heavy serves. Infrequently he made a wild error, but he never put two together to give any heart to the suffering Sampras.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," Philippoussis said softly, as though in disbelief and afraid to pinch himself in case he woke up. "I've felt nothing like this before. I could do nothing wrong. I felt that I could serve an ace any time I wanted."

Here was a player who had lost miserably to Britain's 90th-ranked Tim Henman at Sydney only days ago, and seemed gripped and constricted by the expectations of his home crowd, who were longing for a Great Smite Hope.

"I had to calm myself," he said. "Nick [Bollettieri, his coach] helped a lot." Bollettieri was more exuberant about the result. "I feel like a king," he said, as tears dampened his cheeks. His other star pupil, France's Mary Pierce, had been deposed as the Queen of Australia two days before.

Bollettieri has no magic words to encourage his charge, but he can be very convincing with the same old stuff. "I just told Mark to forget about Australia, the newspapers, what people wanted of him, and just do the things we knew he could do. I wanted him to remember the US Open."

Philippoussis recalled that tournament. "Sampras beat me in four sets, and I just went out to have fun. But I sensed then I could play on the same court with him and this time I went out to beat him."

And beat him he did, not letting Sampras breathe. The match may have escaped from Sampras in the second set tie-break in which he led 3-0 and 5-2 and had set points at 6-5 and 8-7. Philippoussis saved both with gigantic forehands.

As he crunched the final serve of the night, eliciting a feeble, netted return from Sampras, the assembled throng raised the roof with their howls and applause. The champion of 1994 was dead, totally overpowered, and their man was in the fourth round. Sampras had won 16 straight matches in major tournaments, including Wimbledon and the US Open.

As Sampras's girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy sighed: "Now Pete knows what other people felt like facing him at 19, when he won the US Open."