Philippoussis powers Aussies into early lead

Guy Forget, the French captain, made a clenched-fist gesture to the home supporters as he walked on to the indoor clay court here yesterday side by side with his No 2 player, Sebastien Grosjean, before the opening match of the centenary Davis Cup final.

Guy Forget, the French captain, made a clenched-fist gesture to the home supporters as he walked on to the indoor clay court here yesterday side by side with his No 2 player, Sebastien Grosjean, before the opening match of the centenary Davis Cup final.

Then, as Forget took his courtside seat, the diminutive Grosjean was pummelled by his towering opponent, Mark Philippoussis. The Australian No 1 secured the opening rubber, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, after one hour and 57 minutes.

Almost immediately there were murmurings that Forget ought to have selected the taller, in-form Nicolas Escude to share the responsibility in the singles with Cedric Pioline. But Forget, having stood by Grosjean, the man in possession, was too busy preparing Pioline for his contest against Lleyton Hewitt, the 18-year-old Australian No 2, to indulge in hindsight.

Grosjean had done his best to cope with Philippoussis' power, just as he did when they met for the first time at the Monte Carlo Open in April. On that occasion Grosjean was able to at least win the opening set of a best-of-three contest. Yesterday, the Frenchman began to fade after failing to make more of his fightback in the first set.

Two double faults in the third game were indicative of Grosjean's nervous start, Philippoussis capitalising with a backhand pass down the line and then luring Grosjean into a forehand error; one of many the Frenchman was to commit.

A break down so soon, Grosjean was relieved that Philippoussis also played a tentative service game, double-faulting twice, the second time for break point. Grosjean converted, making lively strides to flick a winning forehand half-volley across the court. Two forehand errors cost Grosjean the set, Philippoussis breaking for 5-4 and serving out after 40 minutes for the loss of only one more point.

So far, both players had taken their opportunities - three break points, three breaks of serve - and when Philippoussis hit the far line with a forehand at 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, Grosjean obliged with another forehand error.

Once Philippoussis had saved two break points in the second game, Grosjean struggled to survive, realising, point by point, that his prospects of hurting the Australian were limited and that he would have to rely on the Melbourne "Scud" self-destructing. Apart from the odd careless shot, Philippoussis remained on course, breaking a second time for 5-2, Grosjean netting another forehand on the third break point.

"I knew what I had to do," Philippoussis said. "I played some solid tennis." Grosjean knew what he had to do, too, but he was not capable of executing his shots with the ferocity of his opponent, in addition to which, Grosjean''s forehand continued to misfire. It put him in trouble again at 2-2, 15-30, and undid him completely on the third break point of that game.

After that, Philippoussis was able to bide his time. "I felt very calm out there," he said, "surprisingly calm, to be quite honest."

Philippoussis was one of the few calm people in the arena, such was the passion generated for this first-ever Davis Cup final between two nations who have contributed so much to the tradition of the event.

A customary French industrial strike, this time involving firemen and public transport, made the din outside the Acropolis Expositions Complex almost as noisy as inside the arena, which took some doing as a crowd of 10,000 warmed to the occasion.

There was a harp on the court, creating the illusion of a tennis heaven, and the music of the Nice Symphony Orchestra and the singing of the choir of the Nice Opera provided a moving opening ceremony, after which the spectators took over the vocals.

Australia was strongly represented by a hearty gathering of "The Fanatics", a band of supporters who matched the home crowd chant for chant. "I felt there were 10,000 Fanatics out there and maybe 1,000 French," Philippoussis said. "It was perfect. I couldn't wait to get on court. That's when I knew it was going to be a good day for me and hopefully for the team."

Philippoussis, who has not always been the happiest of campers in the Australian squad, had rarely looked so pleased with an afternoon's work. "I'm sort of out to prove something," he said. "But more out to prove how important Davis Cup really is to me, because some people think that it's not so important to me.

"This is the biggest win of my life so far. There's nothing more important to an athlete than representing his country. You can't understand the true feeling of a Davis Cup final until you play in one. Today that was what it was all about. I'm very relaxed at the moment, but I'm also extremely happy. I don't want to be too overwhelmed, because there's a long way to go."

Davis Cup Final (Nice): M Philippoussis (Aus) bt S Grosjean (Fr) 6-4 6-2 6-4.

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