Tennis: Philippoussis breaks tension

IT USED to be a worry being present when Pat Cash senior was watching his son play matches, his body convulsing every time the former Wimbledon champion hit a serve. Now the stress has transferred to another Australian tennis father, Nick Philippoussis.

"Dad said it nearly gave him a heart attack," the 21-year-old Mark Philippoussis said after squeezing through to his first Grand Slam singles semi-final at the United States Open. "And I think all my team has got some grey hairs."

Pat Cash junior, who helps coach Philippoussis, was on the point of chewing through his plastic credential, and Gavin Hopper, the trainer, looked in need of breathing exercises as their protege duelled through a fifth set tie-break against Sweden's Thomas Johansson on Thursday night. This was a particular kind of drama that cannot be repeated at Wimbledon, where final sets are played to a finish, without tie-breaks.

Philippoussis had recovered from two sets to one down and 2-4 in the fifth set. Each player had three match points in the tie-break. The Australian erased Johansson's third opportunity at 8-9 with his 30th ace, taking the shoot-out 12-10 to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 after three hours and 26 minutes. Philippoussis senior, relieved and proud, hugged his son and told him, "You turned into a man tonight."

They then prepared to face a "Super Saturday" semi-final against Carlos Moya, of Spain, the French Open champion. Philippoussis's compatriot, Pat Rafter, the defending champion, meets Pete Sampras, the world No 1, who is trying to equal Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles. It could be quite a weekend for Australia and Greece.

Sweden, though disappointed, will be encouraged by Johansson's performance. The 23-year-old from Linkoping, who was little known outside Scandinavia in spite of a world ranking of No 33, played his way into the lexicon of memorable finishes at Flushing Meadow.

It would be misleading to classify Philippoussis v Johansson among the great matches because many spectators were driven away by the errors as the contest meandered towards an exciting climax. Johansson was not thrilled. "I'd rather lose 2, 2 and 2 than this," the Swede said. "This is the worst that can happen almost. I'm not saying losing against Mark when he's playing like this is bad, but I broke him to 4-2, lost my serve to 4-3, but then I managed to save I don't know how many break points at 4-5. And in the tie-break I was serving at 6-5. I'm really satisfied with the tournament, but it's too bad that it should end like this."

Players with 15 double-faults on the scoresheet seldom win matches. "The biggest reason was that Mark was coming in on my second serve all the time," Johansson said. "You feel kind of stressed when you hit a second serve on him." Philippoussis understood Johansson's dilemma. "I'm six foot four - when a guy sees me coming to the net, I don't think it looks too good on his side."

Although Johansson had power in his serves - he hit 20 aces, one at 136mph - he could not match Philippoussis's boldness on the second serve. The Australian, often urged to play the percentage game, saved himself by going for broke. In the end 60 errors were eclipsed by 82 winners (including serves).

"I go for those serves, that's just the player I am," Philippoussis said. "I'm going to go for my shots. I have the confidence in my second serve to be able to do that.

"This match has taught me a lot about myself. I wanted to show I'd got some guts out there, that I didn't want to let go, that I'm a fighter. In the past, where it's been tough, I haven't come back strong. I was ready for the challenge out there tonight. I was bouncing on my toes in the fifth-set tie-breaker."

Philippoussis defeated Moya in their only previous match, winning 6-4, 6-3, on a concrete court at Indian Wells last year. "The guy is basically not going to miss from the back," Philippoussis said. "He's going to run everything down. I've got to be ready to play an even tougher match than I did last night."

Moya, the No 10 seed, was asked how he fancied his chances as the odd baseliner out in a quartet of server-volleyers. "Well, I played Philippoussis just once. He beat me. I beat Rafter three times. I beat Sampras once indoor. So, of course, it is not going to be easy. But I beat most of them, so I think I'm able to do it again."

While not underestimating the unseeded Philippoussis, Moya made the point that the Australian does not always deliver on the big occasion. "People are always expecting something great from him, and so far he didn't do that well."

Australia had reason to cheer yesterday. Sandon Stolle, partnering the Czech Republic's Cyril Suk, won the men's doubles title. They defeated Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. Stolle's father, Fred, won the doubles title three times, twice with Roy Emerson and once with Ken Rosewall.