Philippoussis's raw force overpowers sorcery of Agassi

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The Independent Online

As Tim Henman fought so hard to keep alive his latest tryst with Wimbledon glory last night, it would have been callous to tell him what lay ahead.

It was the possibility of another intimidating meeting with Mark "Scud'' Philippoussis in a Friday semi-final. Three years ago the 6ft 4in Australian cut Henman down in five draining sets in the fourth round. However, sometimes it is necessary to say that there is vital, indeed exquisite life at Wimbledon outside the pages of the Henman saga and last night it came magnificently in the form of Philippoussis' stunning victory over the tournament's other sentimental favourite - the pigeon-toed but still at times corus- catingly brilliant Andre Agassi.

The 33-year-old Las Vegan - a thrilling champion here 11 years ago - was expected to be facing the local hero, and that certainly seemed the likelihood for most of his 3hr 12min encounter with Philippoussis on Court One.

In fact, when the big man, who had opened with withering 134 mph power in his service and some surprising delicacy on other parts of the court, faded from that daunting level to slip a set behind - conceding the tie-break at the end of the third - it seemed that the little sorcerer of the baseline was utterly in control.

But Philippoussis simply went back to his formidable armoury and cranked up the action. It was tennis's equivalent of pattern bombing. He finished a 6-3, 2-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 winner - and perhaps the man who finally told Agassi, the last champion still standing and fighting in this tournament, that the best of his Wimbledon story was over.

The basis of his triumph was a barrage of aces - in all there were 46 of them bursting around Agassi's ears. In the end, the weight of that pressure was too great even for the resilience and the artistry of one of the most distinctive players ever to capture the imagination of a Wimbledon crowd.

There were other stunning statistics. In all, Philippoussis' power fashioned 18 break points, but such was the defiance and touch of Agassi that he was able to convert only three.

That, perhaps more than anything else, illustrated the fine edge of this superb contest. Agassi absorbed the impact of Philippoussis' storming overture and, it seemed, had got himself into a position of unshake- able ascendancy when he produced wave upon wave of silky groundstrokes to take the second set 6-2. Then, in an amazing game in the third set which went to deuce six times, Agassi seemed to have taken a psychological hold which could not be shaken. By the end of the third set tie-break he was as aggressive and alive as the 22-year-old who broke the heart of a young Goran Ivanisevic with service returns which sounded like rifle shots all those years ago.

It was Ivanisevic's record of aces which Philippoussis finally matched when he served his way to victory last night. That level of efficiency, however, did not bring the Croat success in his second-round match with the Swede Magnus Norman six years ago. But the mark of 46 tied the highest ever recorded at Wimbledon and, finally, was the factor which broke Agassi's belief that he could again be the champion.

What the details cannot tell you is the sweep and the ambition of the play. Philippoussis was christened "the Scud"' because of that raw power from the service line. But on this high point of his career - his record against Agassi going into the game was 1-6 and he had never beaten him on grass - this was surely a limited view of his potential to win in the highest company. Over the years the man from Melbourne has acquired a reputation for under-achievement, but that seemed like an old rebuke as Agassi was so relentlessly worn down.

For Agassi, on this occasion there was only the satisfaction that he had played with the style and the commitment that has always been the basis of his reputation as one of the great entertainers. Now, with the contentment which has come with his relationship with another major figure in the game, Steffi Graf, there might have been some temptation to believe that the old fire had dwindled.

For most of the three hours of absorbing tennis - which blazed without break after a rain-stoppage that left the first six minutes of the match lingering in the mind like the arresting overture to a great symphony - the truth seemed quite the opposite.

Agassi showed so much of his old relish for the action and had his opponent not dug so deep there would be good reason to believe that the lanky German Alexander Popp, waiting in the quarter-finals, would have been very hard pushed to stifle the American dream of another title.

As it is, Agassi will maybe now have to live on his Wimbledon memories. Heaven knows, they are vivid enough. When he won here in 1992, he reported weeks of intense celebration back home in Las Vegas. He flew in a chartered jet back to the casinos of his youth determined to relive, time and again, every nuance of his triumph.

He filled that plane with every available newspaper and he read and re-read the story of his success. That is a memory which will presumably never die. What happened at Wimbledon last night is also something that should not be so easily consigned to oblivion.

Agassi, 11 years on, remains a superb example of a competitor of high skills and great pride. What happened to him, finally, was that at 33 he encountered a younger, stronger and more ambitious man. That hunger has often been a questioned quality in Mark Philippoussis. But last night it consumed one of the great tennis players.

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