Powerful Philippoussis emerges as real threat to fancied names

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The Independent Online

The people of Cardiff were celebrating last night after a local resident eased into the third round in straight sets. Mark Philippoussis, unseeded but by no means unfancied, despatched Cyril Saulnier, a qualifier from France, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6. The folk of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, raised a glass to their adopted Australian son.

As dangerous floaters go, Philippoussis is more Jaws than jetsam. No one in the bottom half of the draw will regard him lightly on this form. Those potentially on course to meet him include Andre Agassi - who beat Lars Burgsmüller yesterday - and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who progressed yesterday after Nicolas Escudé retired injured. There is also David Nalbandian, last year's losing finalist. He recorded a second straight-sets win of the week to overcome Andre Sa of Brazil. The draw puts the Argentinian on collision course to meet Philippoussis in the semi-final.

"I feel like every match I'm playing I'm getting better," Philippoussis said. "My rhythm's getting better. I'm not rushing as much. I'm setting the points up better... The great thing is if you're serving big, you're confident in your service games, you're winning them comfortably. When you return you then have chances to step it up, whether it be chipping and charging or trying to go for winners. That tends to put pressure on the other person."

That analysis was a fairly accurate summary of how Philippoussis won yesterday, with confidence based in power and early superiority.

He then added - worryingly for anyone likely to face him - that he feels the tournament gets easier the longer it goes on. "I honestly think the first week is the toughest week to get through," he said. "I feel that every match I get through the game comes together a little better, your strokes get better, the rhythm on the serve and volley gets a little better. I think things start coming together a lot more with each match you play."

Philippoussis has reached the quarter-finals here three times, in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In the first two he lost to the all-conquering Pete Sampras, who went on to win the title. In 2000 he lost to Agassi in a year when Sampras won the title again.

"It's nice not to see his name in the draw," Philippoussis said of Sampras when asked if his own chances are higher in the post-Sampras era. "But I'm only thinking about the match I'm playing, the next round. That's where my mind is. Nothing further than that."

His third-round opponent will be Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, who progressed in straight sets yesterday past Australia's Scott Draper. The winner of their meeting will face a fourth-round match against either Agassi or Agassi's third-round opponent, Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco, who advanced past Nicolas Massu yesterday.

Nalbandian performed impressively against Sa, progressing 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to show again that his grass-court form of a year ago was no mere flash in the pampas. "I think I'm playing good, I felt really good today," he told a sparsely populated press conference.

He was then asked, in frank terms, whether his low profile, which persists despite last year's final, might actually help him. The inquiry, verbatim, was: "Do you feel like a forgotten man in this tournament? After all, you were a finalist last year. There's not that many guys sitting here waiting to talk to you. How do you feel about that? Do you think that might be to your advantage?"

He replied: "Yes. I think the people don't see me. It's the same as last year. Last year I did fine."

Talking about what he learnt from last year's final, which he lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt, he said: "The final was difficult for me. It was my first time on Centre Court. But I think the experience was very important, a very, very big thing to me. And I think that's helped a lot because after that I started playing better and with much confidence."

Nalbandian now faces Slovakia's Karol Kucera, with the winner of that drawn to meet Tim Henman. James Blake, No26 seed, went out disappointingly in straight sets to Sargis Sargsian of Armenia in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2.

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