Philippoussis shows little joy at triumph on his own terms

Broody Australian still seems troubled by memories of a chequered career despite overpowering Grosjean to reach tomorrow's final
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The Independent Online

The tennis of Mark "Scud'' Philippoussis may at last be threatening to split the heavens, but it could be some time before he walks happily with the angels.

This is likely to hold true, all available evidence suggests, even if he should manage to stifle the emerging brilliance of Roger Federer in tomorrow's final.

Before the Swiss player ransacked the hot favourite Andy Roddick with shots that came like beams of light on a gloomy afternoon, Philippoussis was rendering Tim Henman's conqueror Sebastien Grosjean to little more than a particle of Centre Court memory with a relentless 7-6, 6-3, 6-3, exhibition of quite brutal functionalism.

However, the big Australian of Greek and Italian blood is still a long way from performing the dance of Zorba. Indeed, it might just never happen.

In semi-final victory and the high point of a career riddled with both injury and self-imposed conflicts, a dark past plainly sat on his square shoulders. His words were as sparse as the hopes he had offered Grosjean back on the Centre Court, but his demeanour spoke a thousand bleak words of a store of bitter memories.

He was asked if he had spoken with his former Davis Cup team-mate Pat Rafter and conqueror in the 1998 US Open final - and a member of the Australian tennis establishment which from time to time has expressed its dismay at Philippoussis's erratic career course. "No,'' he said. It sounded like another slam of a door.

He was asked about the effect of his father Nick's successful fight against cancer, and again his answer seemed to be drawn out of old hurts. "It's always nice when your family is healthy,'' he said briskly. "My family is my No 1 priority, not tennis.'' Nor did he want to discuss the meaning of the two Greek words written on the plasters attached to his racket hands. One hopeful interrogator thought they meant "Man of Pathea". Philippoussis, without expression, again said: "No." Then, grudgingly he added: "It's just something I have to remind myself of on the court... that's all.'' Another discussion closed.

Fortunately for himself, his family and those supporters who have continued to believe in his extraordinary ability, he was infinitely more forthcoming on Centre Court.

If Federer would later bring a wonderful subtlety to the place, Philippoussis offered a searing example of tennis played at maximum power - and conviction. It meant that the Frenchman Grosjean, who had looked so able and so imaginative in ending another of Henman's dreams, was doomed soon enough to absolute futility.

Later he shook his head - once again - and said: "It was so very tough today. Mark served big all the time and I had pressure on my serve, especially at the beginning of the second set. So I had to maybe serve more first serves today and I just couldn't do it well enough. It was very intense pressure.''

When Philippoussis wasn't touching 130mph, he was placing the ball with a killing accuracy and when Grosjean surrendered his serve in the first game of the second set you knew his glory was gone.

The gloom that attached itself to Grosjean was broken only by a lady who wanted to know the secrets of his long, curly hairstyle - and what he thought about the job of bringing glamour to men's tennis.

The Frenchman broke into a smile that Philippoussis would never approach at any phase of his victory and said: "Glamour? What do I know about glamour? But I'm glad you like my hair.''

Had it been snipped off, as Samson's was, the loss of power and certainty could not have been more profound. Said Grosjean: "Anyone who plays Philippoussis when he is in that mode is going to have big problems. I did my best, but today he was just too much.''

For Philippoussis the challenge was outlined clearly enough by the superb touch of Federer later in the day and he knows now that he cannot stray in accuracy without swift and devastating consequences.

Earlier in the week Philippoussis had shown the depth of an often-doubted competitive streak when he committed Andre Agassi to the possibility of his final failure to recapture the glory he'd found as a 22-year-old winner of Wimbledon 11 years ago. In that match - still by some distance the best of the current tournament - Philippoussis showed a wonderful consistency at the service line and in the process produced a record-equalling 46 aces. That is the kind of work he has to produce tomorrow against the man who showed beautiful balance and an often-exquisite dimension to his game.

Said Philippoussis: "The good thing for me is that I got through the semi-final in three sets. I'm not thinking beyond the final. It's something I learnt after my third bout of surgery. I said I would take every day as it came and that's been my approach this time.

"When you've had a bad run of injury you don't take anything for granted. Yes, I love fairytales. I like movies. But as far as I'm concerned winning Wimbledon is still a long way away. That's all I'm thinking about. Playing my game, getting my body ready and coming up for that match with the right approach.''

Some American observers were intrigued to know why a multi-millionaire tennis star lives in one of the more insalubrious corners of Southern California - a surfing beach called Cardiff Reef. "I like it fine there. It's great surf, and that's what I like to do.'' He also likes to explore danger. Surfing, he suggested, was hardly the most perilous thing he did. "I like sky-diving, and I wanted to get my sky-diving licence. I love motorbikes, street bikes, dirt bike-riding...'' It was this kind of passion, you had to suspect that first detached him from those who wanted to see him smoothly ascend the tennis ladder.

His satisfaction maybe is that he has got to the peak of the game in his own way - on his own terms. The most dramatic declaration he has made on his route to the Wimbledon final was that if his father could beat cancer he could conquer the injury problems which once left him in a wheelchair.

Maybe tomorrow evening there will be a hint of that Zorba dance. But we shouldn't hold our breath.