Tennis: Cash flow for Philippoussis

Ronald Atkin learns the Aussie challenge is now a collective effort
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The Independent Online
THE FROLICS of doubles notwithstanding, tennis is essentially a loner's business. There is a growing sense, however, that a back-up team can make a huge difference, as Pat Cash was happy to acknowledge after winning Wimbledon in 1987. Now Cash is at the heart of a venture to propel Mark Philippoussis to the forefront of the men's game, a venture which has paid spectacular dividends over the past 12 months.

At this stage of last season Philippoussis, the Australian son of Greek immigrants, was on the brink of chucking it all in after a string of early losses. The London-based Cash offered help to his compatriot, linked up with Mark's existing coach Gavin Hopper, another Aussie, and a floundering career was revived. Philippoussis reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals, was runner-up at the US Open and this year won the Super Nine event at Indian Wells, the biggest of his seven titles to date. "You could have a support team of five or six behind a player," said Hopper. "As long as the athlete gets to his peak that's all you have to worry about. What we are doing with Mark is working because he has become a better player, a better competitor.

"I like to think that what we are doing may be the future, where a player has two or three people, a major support team. Then the ideas are flowing. I suppose my expertise is in having a PhD in exercise physiology, but I talk all the time with Pat as well because he has been through it all. So long as you are open to ideas it is an easy relationship.

"Mark has great highs and unbelievable lows. At this point last year he was frustrated with his whole game, with himself, he didn't want to compete. Since then he has been pretty much a competitor."

Typically, Cash is even more forthright. "Two years ago Mark was this fat kid. Now he's a real athlete, one of the best, if not the best, on the tour. For a guy of 6ft 5in to move the way he does is fantastic. Everybody knew that when Mark was hot he was unbelievable, you couldn't stop him. But just wait half an hour and it would change. He would have weeks where he was great and weeks where he was terrible.

"To a certain extent that was because of his attitude and, when he realised this, Gavin and I were able to work on a game for him to fall back on, a middle game, a bit of solid stuff where he can play safe and wait and go `bam' when he has to. And when he goes `bam' it's all over."

Being able to go "bam" when it matters remains the core of the 22-year- old Philippoussis's game, so much so that his huge serving earned him the nickname Scud, as in missile. What Hopper and Cash have been trying to do is turn a one-trick pony into a big-race thoroughbred. "That's where I have come in," said Cash. "When to attack, when to defend, what shots to play under pressure, when not to go for the million mile an hour one, without taking that out of his game."

One of the first things Team Philippoussis agreed on was that Mark's playing schedule needed to be cut. "It was no use playing tournaments just for the sake of them," said Cash. "I didn't play a lot of tournaments but I gave 100 per cent in the ones I did. That way I could feel good about myself and people would expect to see a good effort from me. For Mark to reduce his schedule was a good move."

Hopper concurs. "At 6ft 5in and 200lb, if you went at it week in, week out there is no way you could see a year through. This year he is playing 18 to 19 tournaments, about 25 weeks in all, and at the moment, touch wood, he has been injury free for the last year."

With reason, Philippoussis (seeded seven at Wimbledon) is deeply grateful to the duo piloting his career. "I owe everything to Gavin and Pat," he said. "First of all, they are good friends, they're not just there for the job and the money, they care about me. They want to know how I feel before the matches, what happens in the match and why, whether I feel flat.

"Whatever, they want me to talk about it, which is great because I'm just a slow maturer. I love having fun, I'm a big kid. Until we teamed up I had a lot of other things on my mind."

Philippoussis's top level of tennis has gone up in the past year but what pleases his advisers is the huge improvement in the middle and lower levels of his play. "The bottom level has gone up 100 per cent," said Hopper. "That's remarkable because it used to be pitiful sometimes when he walked out on a wrong day. I would like to see a year when he doesn't lose any first rounds, competing in each tournament to a certain level. Play a bad match, but still be good enough to win it."

Cash, who knows something about persistence, says: "You've just got to keep knocking on the door with these big guys and eventually the door will open. The only way is to get through to the quarters and semis regularly and Mark is doing that."

With the assistance of the occasional Scud, of course.