Hard work paying off for Philippoussis

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The Independent Online

Peter Mcnamara was due to leave here for Frankfurt last night to compete against the likes of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in an ATP Senior Tour event, but he will be otherwise engaged preparing Mark Philippoussis for his Paris Indoor championship semi-final against Gustavo Kuerten, the top seed.

Peter Mcnamara was due to leave here for Frankfurt last night to compete against the likes of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in an ATP Senior Tour event, but he will be otherwise engaged preparing Mark Philippoussis for his Paris Indoor championship semi-final against Gustavo Kuerten, the top seed.

"I think Peter's back is starting to hurt right now," Philippoussis joked when asked if his recently appointed coach was likely to desert him to join the veterans.

McNamara started working with the 24-year-old Australian last month, renewing an association that dates back to when Philippoussis was a 12-year-old in his junior squad.

Whether the familiar voice in his ear has revitalised Philippoussis's game, or whether it was the sound of the clock reminding him that his career would not last forever, his play here this week has been encouraging. Today's contest against Kuerten is likely to provide clearer evidence of how much Philippoussis has improved in terms of attitude.

Having overpowered Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the fourth seed, in straight sets in the third round, Philippoussis did well to prevail, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, in a tight quarter-final yesterday against David Prinosil, a German qualifier. The closeness of the match was hardly surprising, given that Prinosil had won their two previous encounters, also played indoors, in three sets: in Milan in 1997 and Ostrave in 1998.

It is interesting how often players survive an early crisis and then make a mark on a tournament. In the first round of the qualifying event, Prinosil trailed the Frenchman Cyril Saulnier, 5-7, 0-3. He recovered, and in the main draw eliminated Franco Squillari, the 11th seed, and outlasted Michael Chang en route to meeting Philippoussis.

Prinosil threatened to continue his success against the big Australian, who interspersed some great shots with a series of duff shots. There was a typical example of Philippoussis's ability to infuriate and impress in rapid succession in the 10th game of the second set: a lapse of concentration led to him booming a forehand into the net for 15-15, after which he hit three aces in a row. Even when it came to the tie-break, Philippoussis lost a 3-0 lead before restoring his authority with a superb angled forehand volley on the way to winning the concluding four points.

McNamara looked on and took some notes. "Maybe some people think Mark's an under-achiever," McNamara said, "but he's been to the US Open final and he has won the Davis Cup. He's learning all the time."

"We definitely haven't changed anything, especially technique-wise," Philippoussis said. "We're just trying to use my game; put it together more. The great thing is I'm doing some work off the court and feel I'm getting fitter and can stay out there for a long time if I have to."

"It was important to get him back into a routine in preparing for a match to stop the wrong things happening," McNamara said. "He's very up and down anyway, so you don't want that to go worse than it is. We've gone back to basics, even with what might seem little things; like five or 10 minutes before a match, does he stretch, does he skip? He had got out of a routine."

McNamara, best remembered for his Wimbledon triumphs as a doubles player with his compatriot Paul McNamee (they defeated Bob Lutz and Stan Smith in 1980 and John McEnroe and Peter Fleming in 1982), regards his work with Philippoussis as unfinished business. "I want him to be three or five in the world. I want him to win a Grand Slam tournament. I want him to be the best he can be."

Kuerten, the French Open champion, defeated Spain's Albert Costa in the quarter-finals, 6-3, 6-4. He won his only previous match against Philippoussis, 6-2, 6-2, on the clay of the Italian Open last May.

The Brazilian is one of five players who can end the Champions Race 2000 as the world No 1. Kuerten and Russia's Marat Safin, who defeated Spain's Alex Corretja in the quarter-finals yesterday, 7-6, 6-3, are the favourites, but Pete Sampras, Magnus Norman and Kafelnikov are still in the running going into the final furlong.

Should the 20-year-old Safin succeed, he would become the youngest ever No 1, taking the record from John McEnroe, who was aged 21 and 15 days when he rose to the top on 3 March 1980.

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