Philippoussis rallies and then keeps his nerve to rescue challenge

Australian big server grabs advantage after going two sets down to efficient German while British No 1 is dazzled by masterful musketeer

Nick Harris
Thursday 03 July 2003 00:00
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It seemed for a while yesterday that the wet weather was playing havoc with Mark Philippoussis's missile technology as he fell two sets behind in his quarter-final here against Alexander Popp of Germany.

But after a day of stop-start play and a stirring comeback, the man who ousted Andre Agassi was level at two sets and two games apiece and it was Popp who went home looking rusty. When play resumes today, the score will stand at 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 2-2, and with Philippoussis 30-0 ahead on his serve.

Philippoussis was not serving badly in the first two sets but nor was his biggest weapon invincible. It had been the deciding factor in his fourth-round win over Agassi. Then, the Australian served 46 aces to equal the Wimbledon record and stun the best returner serve in the game.

The first two sets yesterday also saw Philippoussis falter with his volleys and he lost more points at the net than he won. His returns were less than convincing in the early stages and he won one break point from seven contested in the first three sets.

Four of those unconverted points came in the second game of the match. None were converted before the first rain interruption. When the players returned to the court, Popp was the quicker of the pair to find his rhythm and took advantage by breaking his opponent. A brilliant return brought no answer from Philippoussis and Popp moved into a 2-1 lead.

Popp served well for the rest of the set, give or take the wobble in the 10th game. Leading 5-4 and serving, he needed to save two break points, which he did before serving out and taking the first set 6-4.

Philippoussis had ended the first set with two love service games, but fell victim to another Popp break in the fifth game of the second set. By then Popp was serving superbly and was returning consistently. The 26-year-old German, contesting his second quarter-final here, earned three break points and took advantage. A superb cross-court backhand, deep behind Philippoussis, sealed the game 3-2.

Popp conceded just three points on his serve during the whole of the second set and took it 6-4.

Philippoussis rallied - in a metaphorical sense only - to break Popp for the first time in the match in the sixth game of the third set. Errors crept into the Popp's game and when he struck a forehand long Philippoussis let out a roar of delight. The Australian kept his own nerve this time and rounded off the set with a love service game and two consecutive aces to take the third set 6-3.

By 4.40pm, the skies had opened again and the players traipsed off again to the locker room just at the stage Philippoussis's comeback was gaining momentum and he had the upper hand on serve. The statistics at that point showed he had hit 16 aces to Popp's eight, had served fewer double faults (five against six) and had seen a higher percentage of first serves in (68 per cent to 60). His fastest serve had been 133mph and his average first serve had been 123mph. Popp's corresponding figures were 125mph and 118mph.

It took the best part of two hours for the covers to come off and play resumed shortly before 7pm. If anything, the delay seemed to have refreshed Philippoussis. He forced the first break of the fourth set in the third game and then sat on his chair and glanced quietly skywards. He did not appear to be looking for clouds.

Philippoussis's whole game continued to improve. His serving started to hit the heights reached against Agassi, his returning became sharper and some of his shots took the breath away. The eighth game was won on service to love and included two aces, one of them 133mph to equal his fastest of the day.

In the next game he secured another break after a couple of stunning forehand drives, both hammered on the run with precision down the line. That levelled the match at two sets apiece.

Philippoussis raced through his first service game of the fifth set for and then stalled Popp's service in the next, earning two break points but was unable to find the shots to convert them. The Australian then held serve with ease for 2-1 and Popp laboured to hold serve for 2-2. With Philippoussis 30-0 ahead on serve in the next game at 7.24pm, the rain came down again and play was suspended for the night.

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