"Scud" was never the most imaginative, or helpful, of epithets to the man who bore it on the broadest of shoulders. In Mark Philippoussis's younger years a simple allusion to the velocity of his serve merely placed a hefty burden on him to deliver. In more recent times, the word has acquired a definite suggestion of humour about it. The Australians, it seems, have a habit of naming things by their opposite.
Scuds wreak untold destruction. In their human manifestation they don't lie in hospital beds or sit around in wheelchairs. Once back on the tennis court, they don't miss their target most of the time in Grand Slams, Philippoussis's only previous final being the US Open of five years ago when he was defeated by compatriot Pat Rafter.
It was Pat Cash, one of Philippoussis's several former coaches, who likened winning championships to eating red meat. Once you get a taste for it, you cannot get enough. Cash considered his charge had tasted, and had decided it was enough. Whether that was once the truth, today the Philippoussis psyche is very different from how it was then portrayed.
The presence alone of the 6ft 4in Australian in today's Wimbledon men's final against Roger Federer is confirmation of a resolve which hardened even as he lay recovering, having undergone his third experience of knee surgery two years ago. "I was told by the doctors in New York that, as I'd already had two operations on my knee before, I wouldn't play professional tennis again at the highest level. But I didn't accept that. I knew the human mind is so powerful and could overcome anything."
He added: "My father had cancer three times and at one time they told me he had six months to live. That was six years ago and he's got no cancer now. His body is completely healthy. He told me back then when I was in hospital, 'Don't listen to what they say. Some doctors are very negative. Just be strong and just know you can come back'."
You suspect those sentiments may dominate his emotions as he gazes up to meet the eyes of his father, and current coach, Nick, in the players' box, should he secure the championship today. "I believe that everything in life happens for a reason," Philippoussis said. "Personally, I'm a very lucky person. I have a family who loves me. They're healthy and so I'm blessed. Yet, after my third surgery I felt I was unlucky and thought, 'When's the luck gonna come my side?' But then I thought about it, and knew that was the wrong approach to have. You've got to make your own luck. You can't just sit around and expect things to happen. People are in charge of their own destiny."
When the destiny of the championship is decided today, it is to be hoped there is more fervour in evidence than that which accompanied Philippoussis's semi-final defeat of Sebastien Grosjean. Centre Court at Friday lunchtime was a depository for post-Henman blues. It was inexcusable that the theatre of excellence was considerably less than two-thirds full at the start; the Royal Box ditto.
At the opposite end, Sir Paul McCartney dropped in as anonymously as a former member of the Beatles, clad in a white linen suit, can. This is a man who is concerned that artists are given their rightful priority in the scheme of things. It was evident, immediately after the first set tie-break went his way, that Philippoussis was always going to be the name writ first on this particular record, although Henman's conqueror Grosjean, scuttling around the court like Napoleon in his reversed baseball cap and mop of black hair protruding, increased the entertainment quotient considerably with his deft touches.
But power ultimately prevailed, and afterwards "Flip" was taciturn, almost as if he feared that, with his hospital in-patient and bleak prognosis experiences, talking himself up would be inviting fate to intervene once again. However, he did reveal that his first Wimbledon memory as a child back in Melbourne was the spectacle of Boris Becker, aged 17, at his most gymnastically-inclined. "I remember this guy just diving around everywhere. I kind of admired that," the 26-year-old recalled.
Becker himself remains one of the most revered characters on display as he parades the All England Club. Though he regards comparison of individuals from different generations as invidious he recognises something of the Australian's play in the exhibitions he once produced. "Well, certainly, the backhand, diving volley he hit against [Alexander] Popp at break-point reminded me very much of myself," he said. "The fact that he plays with a classical, power serve-volley game is very much as I used to play, yeah? But now we should only talk about Mark, not about any of us old guys. This is his time."
And what have his observations revealed? "He's got the weapons to win," declared the three-times Wimbledon champion. "It was always just a question of how long it would take him to realise that. He's got big talent, big power, and he's finally producing the kind of tennis we've all been waiting for a long time." Becker added: "The surgery he had gave him a big scare. It's bound to when doctors tell you that you will never play tennis again. At 24, it's the last thing you want to hear. But that has changed his whole attitude, his whole outlook towards life and especially to tennis. He knows that it could be over any given day."
Becker's words are partly echoed by Brad Gilbert, the coach of Andy Roddick, who many suspected would face the Australian in the final but lost out to Federer. "Philippoussis has played the match of his life, and he was unbelievably lucky to beat Andre [Agassi]," was Gilbert's analysis. "If Andre had won, he would never in the history of the world have lost to Popp or Grosjean. But Philippoussis is there; he's hit over 160 aces so far and he'd be a worthy champion." And finally justify that unfortunate nom de guerre.Reuse content