Low-profile defending champions regularly fall short, but Stefan Koubek rose magnificently to the challenge of facing the Wimbledon finalist, Mark Philippoussis, in the first round of the Qatar Open here yesterday. The 27-year-old Austrian, who has tried to keep alive the flame lit by his illustrious compatriot Thomas Muster, defeated Philippoussis, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
Koubek, ranked No 53, did not drop a set in winning the Qatar title last year, but his comeback yesterday to overcome Philippoussis, the Australian world No 10, was as good as anything he has achieved in his career.
Little more than a month ago, Philippoussis was the hero of Australia's Davis Cup triumph against Spain in the final in his hometown, Melbourne, and on the eve of yesterday's match he spoke of anticipating a more successful year on the Tour on 2004. Although his loss to Koubek may transpire to be nothing more than a rusty start, Philippoussis will be anxious to regain his form in time for the Australian Open, which starts a week next Monday.
"I just didn't get the preparation I wanted," Philippoussis said. "I only started practicing last Monday after the pectoral injury I got in the Davis Cup."
Philippoussis, who started the match reasonably well, seemed stunned by Koubek's recovery in the second set. The Austrian continued to show the greater confidence in the final set and led 5-1 before his opponent threatened to reel him in, reducing the margin to 5-4.
"I made some bad mistakes in the final set," Koubek said, "and he realised he had a chance to come back. When I was 5-1 up he kept the ball in court so I would miss."
Koubek caught on in time, and it was Philippoussis who hit a backhand long on the second match point.
The value of Andy Roddick's pre-season fitness regimen was evident in his first match of the year when the world No 1 scampered about the baseline returning five consecutive smashes from his Russian opponent, Nikolay Davydenko.
"I don't know whether that was fitness or lucky guessing, but I'll take the credit for fitness," Roddick said after defeating Davydenko 6-3, 6-4.
The smash-return routine on the first point of the concluding game was the highlight of the match, although Davydenko was a more obdurate opponent than a straight-sets loss suggests. Davydenko also lost his last eight Tour-level matches of 2003, culminating in a defeat by Tim Henman in the first round of the Paris Masters, but he was lively enough to give Roddick a brisk workout yesterday.
Roddick converted his first break point of the match for 4-2 in the opening set and dispatched his second opportunity of the contest for 4-3 in the second set, the success of these clinical ripostes delighting him.
"One of the things I've been working on is returning game points so I don't have to rely so much on my serve," the 21-year-old American said.
Apart from one blip, which resulted in his having to save a break point in the sixth game of the second set, Roddick's serve took care of itself, and his stamina was never in question.
"My off-season training has been a lot more fitness-based than tennis-based," he said. "I had a live-in trainer for six weeks, then Brad [Gilbert, his coach] came down for a crash tennis course."
Henman, the seventh seed, faces a difficult challenge today against Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina, who stands between the British No 1 and a place in the quarter-finals. Chela who has won two of their three previous matches, is ranked No 38 and yesterday beatBelgium's Olivier Rochus, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.Reuse content