Fast-moving Kiefer is Scud's next target
GERMAN Nicolas Kiefer will have to find a way to spike the booming service game of big-hitting Australian Mark Philippoussis if he is to carry any hopes of winning the Salem Open final at Victoria Park today.
An awesome task. As fellow pin-up boy Patrick Rafter found out yesterday when he was bumped out in the semi-finals, losing 7-6 (7-2), 6-4. Philippoussis fired in 14 aces to snuff out his compatriot's chances of winning his first Hong Kong title in five attempts.
'He served very well. He was sharp today and I didn't get too many opportunities,' said Rafter after the all-Australian battle. 'He played consistently while I felt a little bit flat today.'
It was the first time that Philippoussis had beaten him. And by the look of things, it won't be the last either.
'It feels good to beat him. I have great respect for Patrick, especially as a player. I had a game plan and I felt confident out there,' said Philippoussis.
Nicknamed 'Scud' for obvious reasons, Philippoussis has rifled in a total of 61 aces in his four-match progress into the final. It is a pity the centre court does not have a speed gun to measure the velocity of his serves as at past tournaments.
Organisers probably thinking about the welfare of his opponents - it is demoralising enough to see a ball whistle by without having its speed registered - must have done away with the speed gun.
Rafter must have wished he had a nickname like 'Sam'. A surface-to-air-missile might have just helped him hone in on Philippoussis' aces, most of which were sent down while the big points were played. It left Rafter with no answers although he hung on gamely in the first set. which went to a tiebreak.
Philippoussis quickly moved to a 5-0 lead before Rafter managed to hold his own serve. But it was not enough as Philippoussis wrapped it up with an ace and a service winner.
The 1.93-metre giant from Melbourne then stepped up a gear in the second set, breaking Rafter in the third and fifth game to take a 4-1 lead. With the sparse crowd urging him on, Rafter hit back to break Philippoussis in the sixth game, but his opponent was not to be denied as he held his remaining service games and wrapped up the match with an inevitable ace.
Philippoussis was a picture of pure concentration and determination during the 93-minute encounter. He was focused on only one thing - beating Rafter. There is a lot of bad blood between the two players, arising over Philippoussis' decision not to play in the Davis Cup.
Two-time US Open champion Rafter, who swears by the Davis Cup, however revealed that reconciliation was a few steps away. 'We are working on our differences slowly. We are talking all the time in the locker room and there are no bad vibes between us. There is the possibility that he could be back in the team next year. We can be a very strong team,' said Rafter.
Kiefer subdued Englishman Tim Henman 6-4, 6-2 to keep alive his hopes of winning his second title this year. The German is playing inspired tennis at the moment, having won all his four matches in straight sets and not even being taken to a tiebreak.
He hopes this will be a weekend for German sport.
'I hope I win here, Germany beat England at Wembley and then Michael Schumacher wins the Grand Prix in Japan,' said Kiefer.
The manner in which he disposed Henman suggests a man in top form. He broke Henman once in the first set and then twice more later to rush to an emphatic victory.
'It might have looked easy but it wasn't. For sure it is going to be tough tomorrow, but I'm confident,' said Kiefer who beat Philippoussis the last time they met, two years ago in France on a surface similar to that at Victoria Park.
Philippoussis said: 'It is going to be a tough match. He is moving well.'
The question is, will he move quickly enough to cope with those scud-like aces?