Trauma of a nation's rising son

Richard Yallop in Melbourne studies the quiet strength of an ace in the pack
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The Independent Online
When the book is finally written on Tennis Parents, beginning with Gloria Connors, and continuing with Jim Pierce and Stefano Capriati, there will be an Australian chapter on Patrick Cash Senior, who sired the 1987 Wimbledon champion, and Nick Philippoussis, proud father of Mark, Australia's 20-year-old would-be champion.

The 1996 season began with Mark Philippoussis beating Pete Sampras at the Australian Open in electrifying fashion, and looking like a worldbeater. Although Philippoussis - Tim Henman's first-round opponent in the Open tomorrow - won his first ATP tournament in October, in Toulouse, the potential that flared in Melbourne in January flickered only intermittently through the rest of the year, which he ended ranked 30.

Philippoussis's nickname of "Scud" is based on the power of his game and the speed of his serve, but for much of the year he seemed to be rendered emotionally impotent by confusion over how to handle the relationship with his father, and the continuing criticism that he would not fulfil his potential so long as Nick retained such a dominant role in his career.

The year had seen three changes of coaching personnel in the Philippoussis camp. Nick Bolletieri started the year as coach, but left in May, complaining about the father's influence. Todd Viney, a Melbourne footballer, lasted only six weeks as Mark's physical trainer, and Peter McNamara, the former Wimbledon doubles champion, was sacked as coach in November, only three months into the job, and after helping Philippoussis to his first tour title.

Bolletieri had his revenge in his book My Aces, My Faults, published just before the US Open. He recounted how he had ignored all the warnings that Nick Philippoussis was demanding and possessive: "I thought Nick and I could work together, and I was wrong. After the Australian Open Mr Philippoussis decided he didn't like stepping back. He chased Todd Viney, the trainer, away. Then he drove me away. He treated me like the water boy, not like a coach. Whatever I said, he said the opposite. He embarrassed me in front of other players. He embarrassed Mark, too, berated him in the locker-room at Monte Carlo. His rivals should be intimidated by Mark; they should not be feeling sorry for him."

The more Mark and his protective, hypersensitive father have been hurt by the criticism, the more they have retreated into an "us versus them" seclusion, reminiscent of the relationship that once existed between Pat Cash and his father and the Australian media. Cash was the wild colonial boy with an easily inflamed Irish temper. Philippoussis is of milder Greek disposition, described by John Newcombe, the Davis Cup captain, as "a very nice young kid, and shy. He's a big, strapping 20-year-old who's been all around the world, but he's not mature."

Newcombe had his own falling-out with the Philippoussis family when Mark made himself unavailable for a Davis Cup tie against Japan in April. Philippoussis said the decision was prompted by the need to rest an injured heel, but it drew further criticism within Australia.

For much of the year Mark struggled with expectations arising from his win over Sampras, and the limitations of a game relying excessively on raw power. Sampras beat him in straight sets at both Wimbledon and the US Open, when Peter McNamara was starting to introduce some strategy and craft into Philippoussis's basic power game - notwithstanding the fact that Philippoussis hit 78 aces in three rounds at Flushing Meadow.

Sampras reflected on the Australian's game after his US Open win: "If Mark took five per cent off every shot, I think he would be awfully hard to beat. Nobody hits the ball as hard off the ground or serves as fast."

Philippoussis rose to 19 in the world after the US Open, becoming the first Australian to crack the top 20 since Pat Cash in 1988. Newcombe says Philippoussis has as good a serve as anyone on the circuit, and no obvious weaknesses. He believes his progress now depends on his willingness to work, and his ability to temper his power game. He knows that reaching an accommodation with the father is also central to the son's success. "Pete Sampras learned that you achieve your potential by working your guts out on the training ground. You don't just happen to be No 1.

"The important thing is to find the route to enable Mark to fulfil his potential, which I believe is top five in two years. He's the best chance Australia has had to win a Grand Slam since Pat Cash." Henman beware.

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