Australian returns to the big time

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The Independent Online

Even in the absence of Serena Williams, whose supposed application for a wild card for the men's event here this week was laughed off the court, there are some hefty hitters competing at the Eurocard Open.

Even in the absence of Serena Williams, whose supposed application for a wild card for the men's event here this week was laughed off the court, there are some hefty hitters competing at the Eurocard Open.

Among them is Australia's Mark Philippoussis, who hopes to be in good shape to feature in the destiny of the Davis Cup after missing most of the summer season because of a knee injury that wrecked his Wimbledon chances.

Philippoussis, it may be remembered, defeated Britain's Greg Rusedski in the fourth round at the All England Club and was a set up against Pete Sampras in the quarter-finals when his left knee gave way. The 22-year-old subsequently missed the US Open after losing a comeback match against Arnaud di Pasquale, of France, in the first round of the Indianapolis tournament in mid-August. "I tried to come back too soon. I definitely wasn't ready," Philippoussis acknowledged.

Whether Philippoussis is ready for the demands of a match against Andre Agassi, the world No 1, remains to be seen, but that was his reward yesterday for edging a tight first-round contest with Gianluca Pozzi, of Italy, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Philippoussis saved a break point in the opening game of the final set and two more at 5-5.

It was Philippoussis' second win in his third tournament since returning to the court in Singapore on 11 October. There he defeated Bob Bryan, the world No 227, before losing to Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic in the second round. Last week in Lyon, Philippoussis received a bye in the first round and lost to Jim Courier in the next.

Aside from improving his form and fitness for next season, Philippoussis has an opportunity to end a largely frustrating 1999 campaign in triumph in the Davis Cup final against France in Nice in December. Australia have never needed Philippoussis more. With Pat Rafter ruled out for the rest of the year after surgery to his right shoulder, Philippoussis and the 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt will bear the bulk of the responsibility.

Philippoussis says he does not intend to think about the Davis Cup until the time comes, but he is already building psychological bridges. "The way I'm looking at it, we're underdogs going in," he said. "There's no pressure on us playing in France on slow clay. They're playing in front of their country. They've got the pressure."

Playing Agassi here at least will re-acquaint Philippoussis with a big-time atmosphere. "It will be very exciting," the Australian said. "And there's no reason why I can't win. He's No 1 in the world and has had an unbelievable year. Doesn't matter. I don't care who's on the other side of the net. If I play good tennis, it will be tough for him."

Goran Ivanisevic's victory at the 1992 Eurocard Open, when the Croat hit 100 aces in a week, increased the demands for the game to be slowed down. Consequently, the indoor court in Stuttgart, in common with most, is far less pacey nowadays. Philippoussis considers that slowing the game is a health hazard. "They're slowing down the courts and slowing down the balls. Right now everyone's serve is getting bigger, everyone is returning well. If they keep slowing down the balls, players are going to get injured, shoulders are going to hurt, your arm is going to ache. There will be no players left."

The British challenge is due to start tonight. Greg Rusedski, the No 5 seed, was given a first-round bye and will play either Sweden's Magnus Larsson or the Belgian Laurence Tielman in the second round. Tim Henman, seeded No 10, was also given a bye, and is scheduled to open tomorrow against either the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev or the Czech Daniel Vacek.

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