Tennis: Philippoussis accepts wildcard entry to Open
By Terry Maddaford
The "Scud" is about to land in Auckland for the first time with confirmation yesterday that Australian Mark Philippoussis will be one of the headline acts at January’s international tournament.
In granting the 29-year-old the third of his three wildcards, Heineken Open tournament director Graham Pearce has thrown up the possibility of a classic first-round clash.
Philippoussis, who has opted to play Auckland rather than one of his local tournaments as a lead in to the Australian Open, will not be seeded but becomes a "dangerous floater" when the draw is made on January 8.
Also announced yesterday for the January 9-14 open were defending champion Fernando Gonzalez (Chile), American Robby Ginepri and former world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero (Spain)
Delighted with the response so far, Pearce is confident there are more big names to come.
"We already have three of the world’s top 20 confirmed," said Pearce. "We are certain to get a fourth - which would equal the best we have had - but I’m just as confident we will get a fifth which would be a record for Heineken."
But it is Philippoussis who seems certain to attract most attention in much the same way as Gustavo Kuerten did a couple of years ago.
Australians are rare visitors to the ASB Bank Tennis Centre.
In recent years Pat Rafter, in the qualifying tournament, Scott Draper and Todd Woodbridge have played singles here but Richard Fromberg, in 1998 when he was beaten in a dramatic final by Marcelo Rios, was the last Australian in the main draw.
Mark Woodforde, in 1986, was the last Australian to win the open singles crown.
Philippoussis was ranked as high as No 8 on the ATP list in April 1999 and had his highest year-ending ranking (9) in 2003.
Hampered by knee injuries since, his ranking has fallen away to 172. His career earnings are US$6,811,712.
He is to marry his model girlfriend Alexis Barbara in Miami next month before heading to Auckland where he is determined to relaunch his career after a series of knee operations.
Pearce is pleased to welcome back Gonzalez, who will strive to join the short list of players to successfully defend here.
Onny Parun, in 1975 and 1976, was the last back-to-back winner.
Gonzalez saw off some of the best including James Blake, Mariano Zabaleta, Ginepri and Oliver Rochus - 6-4, 6-2 in the final - to win his fifth career title (his first not on clay) in January.
He has continued that good form with further tournament triumphs in the Netherlands and, last week, in Basel, Switzerland (indoors).
In Grand Slams he reached the third round in Australia, the French and US Opens and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. In France and Wimbledon he was beaten by world No 1 Roger Federer.
Ferrero, returns to play the Sovereign singles for the third time, having first played here in 2000 as a teenager.
Seeded seventh, he beat Federer on back court first-up before bowing out in the quarter-finals. He returned earlier this year but was a surprise first round loser.
He joins Rios, Jim Courier, Marat Safin and Kuerten as former No 1 ranked players to play here.
Ginepri is another returning to Auckland.
He first played in 2002 beating Gonzalez in qualifying before bowing out in the first round proper. He qualified again in 2003 but then went out in three sets to Jiri Novak.
This year he reached the third round where he ran into Gonzalez.
Since then he has had a stellar year, winning his second ATP title (in Indianapolis in July) before embarking on a remarkable run at the US Open where he won thrilling five-set matches against Tommy Haas, Richard Gasquet (the 13th seed) and eighth seed Guillermo Coria.
He bowed out in the semifinals - in another epic five-set battle with fellow American Andre Agassi - as his ranking rose to a career-best 15.
The final field will be known on November 30.