Philippoussis locates weapon of grass destruction

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The Independent Online

Raucous chants of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" will continue to shatter the suburban air of SW19 this week, though the use of the singular is appropriate. Mark Philippoussis, the only Australian to make even the third round of the men's singles (the first time his country had been so poorly represented for 12 years) yesterday went one step further after finally leaving behind the seeded Czech Radek Stepanek, 4-6 7-6 (9-7) 6-4 7-6 (8-6). Andre Agassi is next.

The only place to be for the Antipodean contingent with their green and yellow wigs and inflatable kangaroos was therefore on Court 2 in the heat of the Melbourne-like midday sun, where they were kept sweating for more than three and a half hours. It was a rather protracted but entertaining match that mixed awesome power - Philippoussis hammered down 33 of the 48 aces - with some deliciously deft touches, notably each man's drop shots at the net.

Yet moments of brilliance tended to be followed by a crass error; Philippoussis would continually rouse his supporters to excited roars with a hard-earned break-point then deflate them by frittering it away. He won only one out of 13 in the match, so that Stepanek, without ever approaching his opponent's service speed of 130mph and upwards, was broken only that once in four sets, yet still found himself ejected from the tournament.

How fast fortunes rise and fall on the highly competitive mens' circuit. Stepanek came from nowhere to announce his presence in 2002, finishing the year ranked at 63, then finding himself 35th seed (for such things exist these days) this Wimbledon.

In contrast "Scud" Philippoussis has, over the past couple of years, had as much trouble locating his weapon of mass destruction as Mssrs Bush and Blair. Knee problems, necessitating several operations, caused him to miss six months of the 2001 season and then to finish the following campaign prematurely after a recurrence at the US Open. The man ranked eighth in the world only three years ago was therefore outside the top 100 barely 18 months later and only just made the top 50 going into this tournament.

Technically the underdog yesterday, he made life difficult for himself from the start by dropping serve in the opening game with two double faults. An unlucky call denied him the opportunity to retrieve that loss immediately and the first set slipped away in 40 minutes.

The second turned into a real slog, lasting twice as long as the sun burnt ever more fiercely. Philippoussis began it with 11 aces in four service games but the Czech No 2 was replying in kind. When he offered a chink of light - break-point three times in the extended sixth game - the Australian continually failed to take the chance. Having got away, from the sound of it, by cursing himself in Greek until that point, Philippoussis finally let rip with an Anglo-Saxon obscenity and was officially warned. Chastened but unbowed, he recovered from 4-0 down in the tie-break to 4-4 and then accepted his second set point.

The crucial moment in the third set came when he at last took a break-point by whipping a backhand down the line to lead 4-3. He finished the set three games later with another ace.

So gritty was Stepanek that a five-setter still looked on the cards, even when he was forced to call the trainer for deep shoulder massage on his serving arm at 5-4 in the fourth. Philippoussis might have been expected to need some of the same, but kept raining down the aces to earn another tie-break. Well behind again at 4-1, he recovered once more to take it 8-6 as the gallant Czech twice went long. In the end the Aussie could not be tied down, and the kangaroos exulted.

"It was just a gutsy win," Philippoussis said afterwards. "I think I played good at times but just had to keep on fighting. It's the first time I've played him and you don't know what he's going to do. Now I'm looking forward to playing Andre. That's why we play tennis - for these kinds of matches."