Deadly ground strokes: Mark Philippoussis is on the comeback trail this week at the XL Bermuda Open
By Dan Rutstein
When the double Davis Cup winner finally hangs up his racquet, the provisional plan appears to be moving into fashion.
Although a little hesitant to discuss retirement while still in the throes of a comeback, a bearded, straggly looking Mark Philippoussis finally concedes that there are about “four years left” of his phoenix from the flames tennis career and the next project will be the launch of a clothing line.
Naturally for someone once voted Sexiest Man Alive (People magazine, 1998) he is planning on doing some of his own modelling – although he would prefer to do it his own way.
“They made me do some pretty stupid stuff over the years,” laughed Philippoussis, whose rugged good looks were just about visible beneath his new hairy exterior – and the longing glances of women all around the corporate boxes at Coral Beach confirmed this.
“Modelling was never really for me. They put you in those funny poses, made me look like a bit of a Zoolander, an idiot.
“There’s no way I’m doing any of that naff stuff. I’ve always been interested in fashion so a clothing line might be the one thing I look into when I’m done.
“I guess I’d model it myself, but no stupid poses and clothes always on.”
The Greek-heritage Aussie seemed much more comfortable talking about fashion and modelling than he did the nastier moments of an injury-punctuated tennis career.
Throughout a long interview, conducted in the upper boxes overlooking centre court at the XL Open, his clear good humour came through most on the subjects of basketball – he is a massive Miami Heat fan and spoke gleefully of meeting his heroes on a club family beach day – his nickname and his modelling, while the tennis part of the discussion was clearly more painful for him to discuss. And with little wonder.
The ‘doctors said I would never play again’ story is a familiar one in professional sport across the world. There is always a despair-to-riches tale of woe, whether it be ‘they said I was too small’ or ‘I wasn’t good enough’ or the medical-related version. All these stories end the same way with the runner/footballer/tennis star overcoming great adversity to reach the pinnacle in his chosen sport.
Somehow this story seemed a little more genuine. There is probably enough in it to make a Hollywood blockbuster but the story is told reluctantly, emotionally and in a way that suggests he would rather forget about what he has gone through and just get on with playing the sport he loves – and has loved since first picking up a racquet at the age of six.
It has been a career wracked by injury, with his left knee giving away three times to torn cartilage and requiring three operations, the latter of which was the ‘big one’ and the one which left a range of specialists shaking their collective medical heads at the prospect of his return to top-class sport.
Watching him smoothly drift around the green clay at Coral Beach, unleashing the odd missile of a groundstroke (more about that later), it would be hard to imagine exactly what he went through five years ago after his joint gave away once more.
The surgery didn’t go smoothly and the player who had graced Grand Slam Finals at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows was confined to a wheelchair for three and a half months, then crutches for another two.
For a man who thrived on activity – motorbikes, jet skis and plenty of surfing were the hallmark of his life in Florida – to be injured in this manner was “deeply depressing”.
“To say I wasn’t happy doesn’t do justice to the situation,” continued the player, now speaking slowly, deliberately and in hushed tones.
“The other injuries were frustrating as much as anything – particularly because of the time they came – but this was not what I had expected. It was a very depressing time for me. I couldn’t do any of the things I wanted and, if you know me, you know how frustrating that was.”
If the immobility was not bad enough, the diagnosis from a variety of specialists from across the States that he would never play professional tennis again made a terrible situation even worse.
The 6ft 4ins man-mountain renowned for his power, was in a wheelchair, destined for a life outside tennis and now suffering mood swings and depression.
What saw him through this dark time was his resilience and the help of his father, coach, mentor and best friend Nick.
His father, who had first taught him the game as a youngster, actually removed the armrests from the wheelchair and cut off the half of the backrest so his son could hit a few balls from the chair to keep his son, the world’s former number eight, active and interested.
The rest of the inspiration required to get Philippoussis back to the top came from within.
“The doctors said I wouldn’t play again but I was never one to listen to anyone except my parents,” he said with a vigour that would suggest he absolutely meant it.
“I do what I want to do and that definitely applied here. I never gave up and even though it has been a long road, I still want to keep playing.
“I’ve got a few niggles in the old body but the knee seems to be fine now and I feel all the struggle was worth it.”
The 2003 ATP Comeback Player of the Year could not have been a more deserved award.
For a player who has reached tennis’ heady heights, inside the world top 100 for ten straight years, two Grand Slam finals, victories over pretty much every major player – Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt – and career earnings approaching the $7 million mark, you might think it is hard to motivate yourself for a $100,000 Challenger event.
Strangely not so for Philippoussis, who was interviewed while watching two players he has never heard of battle it out below.
“It’s all about the bigger picture,” said the articulate and amiable Aussie, who admits to being “a bit disappointed with this Bermuda weather – they told me it was sunny all the time”.
“Okay the atmosphere here is not going to be the same as a Grand Slam final against a Pete Sampras, but there are plenty of matches even when I was in the top ten that weren’t like that.
“There is a lot of tennis played outside the very biggest games and, in the early rounds particularly, it is not always big crowds and lots of noise.
“Every match I play is another step towards getting back up the rankings and that is how I look at it.
“It’s a long road but every section of it has to be travelled and the challenge is there for me to meet. I have played in these sorts of tournaments before and I will keep doing so.
“My aim is to get back up to where I was. I am not one for targets or numbers, I am just going to keep playing and hoping to win and doing my best and we will see where that takes me.”
Even Bermuda is a long way to come for a player who dreamed of becoming a soccer player when he was a youngster. His father played professionally as a goalkeeper and the young Philippoussis wanted a similar career until tennis became the obvious path to take.
As a six-year-old he was watching his father play with a friend on a court behind an old church back in Victoria, Australia, and it was his misbehaviour that kick-started his career.
Messing around, nicking the ball and generally interrupting the game meant the lively youngster was told off and only cajoled into behaving after promises that he would get his turn the next day.
The carrot was accepted, the promise fulfilled and Philippoussis did pick up a racquet the following day and then went on to reach the final of a couple of consecutive tournaments before winning three in a row.
“It sort of progressed from there,” he reflected, as the first rains of a wet Coral Beach week started to fall.
“I played a bit of Under 12s, Under 14s, winning a few tournaments as I went along and then it was at 16 that I really went for it. That’s when we knew.”
His career took a remarkable rise from there, he climbed 270 places to world number 32 in his first big year and was comfortably the youngest player in the world’s top 100 at 19 back in 1994.
He was fast turning in to Sampras’ heir apparent as world number one, a cause helped by his Australian Open victory over the all-conquering American.
It was a truly rollercoaster ride with big victories coming as fast as coaching changes plus a row coming with former Bermuda resident – and former best friend and doubles partner – Pat Rafter.
The injuries came nearly as often as the highlights, constantly stunting a career that threatened to spiral to Sampras’ or Roger Federer’s level.
Through it all, the private jets, the fast cars, the playboy lifestyle and the alleged tryst with Anna Kournikova, Philippoussis’ actual tennis career was still successful enough to be talked about in its own right. There were ten singles titles in all, more than 300 career wins, and two Davis Cup triumphs.
And it was in the Davis Cup that his Scud nickname was born.
Warming up the day before team action against Russia – there is an incredible recall of dates, times and places from the athlete’s travels around the globe – the young Philippousis was hitting with renowned doubles pair Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodford.
The two were at the net, keen to work on some volleys and the young pretender was more than happy to supply the constant demand for groundstrokes, walloping the ball at the two of them with great force.
Their protests at his overuse of power only provoked the generation of even more, with one of the doubles greats then labelling him ‘Scud’ for this constant launching of powerful and accurate missiles in his direction.
The nickname has stuck – as has his reputation as one of the hardest hitters from the ground in world tennis.