Interview: Why Mark Philippoussis can't wait for Andy Murray's return
In top-flight tennis it was pretty much the same story for Mark Anthony Philippoussis. The big, brawny Australian served at 142 miles per hour and maintained the same speed off the courts with a succession of glamorous girlfriends. Tennis correspondents were bemused, but the esteemed bards of Oz’s tough-talking tabloids loved an approach they viewed as live-fast, fall-down-the-rankings-young. “Philippoussis is likely to leave the game in a cloud of sexy chicks, poor tennis and yellow Lamborghinis,” decreed one, as the gossip columnists eagerly looked forward to a steady supply of racy copy without the distraction of any more five-set matches.
Well, there was a bit of that. But then the former world No 8 wised up and grew up. Now featuring on the legends circuit, the player variously nicknamed the Scud and Poo insists he has no regrets over a career which didn’t fully realise its early promise. “I had a lot of fun,” he says, “and I have to tell you that everything I did I would do again.”
Let’s call him the Scud; it’s more becoming. We’re talking while Philippoussis, now 41, is in Paris for the French Open as he prepares to visit Scotland for only the second time. “The first was Edinburgh a few years ago and I was knocked out. That castle on the hill; it’s beautiful.” Now it’s Gleneagles for the Brodies Invitational. “Sure you want to win like always,” he says of the ATP Champions Tour, “but there’s the chance for some laughs and a bit of banter.”
What stories this man could tell if, during a change of ends, he was to borrow his Roman general namesake’s most famous phrase and announce to the tournament crowd: “Lend me your ears.” A heap of dog-eared cuttings would have you believe Philippoussis was Australia’s George Best for the moment when the hotel bellboy asked: “Where did it all go wrong?” You know that one: as champagne was being delivered to the room, Bestie was entertaining a scantily-clad Miss World on a bed covered with his winnings from the casino. Maybe there was no beauty queen for the Scud but there was a pop star, an heiress, a titled Englishwoman, the world’s most notorious party girl, actresses Tara Reid and Jennifer Esposito, a cheerleader, a dancer from Badgirl Productions, a bikini model and (phew) Anna Kournikova. “Allegedly,” as we should say. The small, funny papers loved repeating this list and committing some of these job descriptions to print. Australia’s biggest ladykiller since Errol Flynn, so they reckoned.
Let’s look at another list: his tennis record as a two-time Grand Slam runner-up. Does he think he should have achieved more in the game? “First I want to say I’m proud of what I did achieve. There were two Davis Cups [1999 and 2003] and for the first of them, winning the deciding match was an incredible moment which will always be dear to my heart. I won 11 titles but yeah, no Slam. Am I proud? Yes. Am I also disappointed? Yes. But a couple of times I was unlucky.”
One such occasion was 1999’s Wimbledon. In his match against Pete Sampras, Philippoussis had unnerved the defending champion by plundering the first set before injury forced him to quit. “I felt great that day and who knows what might have happened.” Sampras reckoned he did know: “I dodged a bullet out there,” was his reaction to the good fortune. Philippoussis required surgery to a cartilage tear and, in case you get the wrong impression about him, it was repeated hospital visits, rather than repeated nightclub visits, which finally did for the career. He’s philosophical about this, saying: “If you told me as a ten-year-old kid, loving tennis as I did, that I’d be plagued by injuries and have to finish early I’d still have chosen this life.”
He must, then, have sympathy for Andy Murray and the Scot’s current travails. “Sure I do. Andy’s a phenomenal player, different from me, but boy can I appreciate his game. He’s been one of the best ever defensively, and the speed with which he can transform to offence is incredible. How many times do you see him way out of the court and you think the point’s over – and how many times does he get the ball back? It’s almost like he’s duped the other guy by playing a weaker shot. He loves running back to front, side to side, just amazing. But to play like that you need to be 100 per cent. His game is entirely based round his movement and hip surgery is a complicated thing. I’d love to see him get back to his best because his best is one of the most thrilling sights in tennis but what he’s achieved, the Slams and the Olympic golds, he’s in the Hall of Fame whatever. He’s your greatest-ever sportsman, right?” Right.
The ten-year-old boy Philippoussis once was, growing up in Melbourne with his Greek father and Italian mother, allowed to stay up late to watch Wimbledon when Boris Becker ruled the Centre Court. The place made a lasting impression.
“When I first got to play there as a junior it was such a knockout and I was never less than thrilled each trip back. I’m at the French Open right now and enjoyable as that is, it’s only really Wimbledon that I miss from when I played elite tennis. I love that place so much, it’s so special. That’s when I say, yeah, I wish I was out there again. But then the moment passes.”
Philippoussis’ life has changed in every way. Tabloid catnip regarding his romantic adventures for so long, he married Romanian-born model Silvana Louvin in 2013 and the following year his son Nicholas was born. The couple, based in San Diego, California, are expecting their second child in August.
“Generally, what I miss about tennis now is playing against the guys on the big stadium courts where the crowd are going nuts and roaring like crazy,” he continues. “But what I don’t miss is the travelling, the hotels and living out of a suitcase. Here I’ve got more sympathy for Andy because if I had that lifestyle now, as a family man like him, I would find it incredibly difficult. Playing tennis you have to be completely selfish. You’re so focused on your routine, what you eat and the rest you need, and nothing can interfere with that. But as a parent you have to be incredibly unselfish because it’s all about the kids.”
It was in 1996 that Philippoussis scudded on to the scene as an exciting 18-year-old with a booming serve. He disposed of world No 1 Sampras in straight sets at the Australian Open and declared: “I now believe I could beat anyone in the world.” Later that year at the US Open he powered his way to his first Slam final, losing to countryman Pat Rafter, but surely the ultimate prize had simply been delayed. “You saw Mark at that time and thought: ‘Wow, this guy has got it’,” remarked Aussie legend John Newcombe, only to add: “Had he worked consistently harder on his physical abilities he would have won a couple of Slams.”
Pat Cash coached Philippoussis for a while but that relationship didn’t end well. “The most blatant waster of talent in tennis,” Cash dubbed our man. John McEnroe, when he had the gig, reckoned the Scud didn’t listen to a word he said. Philippoussis defends himself up to a point: “I trained hard. Don’t get me wrong: when I went on court I put my head down. But I also had loads of fun.
“I was young. Honestly, when you get older you learn. You’ve lived a bit by then and you can look back and think: ‘Oh man, I wish I had the mind I have now in the body I had back then’. So, yeah, regarding my tennis, I’ve wondered what I could have been like, what I could have done. It could have been incredibly interesting and a little bit scary.
“But that’s what life is about and that’s why it’s so beautiful and it’s also why it’s so painful at the same time. I think back to certain moments in my career when maybe I wasn’t as… ” His words tail off before he returns to his point: “The truth is in order to reach those heights and win Slams you need to eat, sleep and breathe tennis. Growing up I was like that. But when I got to a certain point, to be perfectly honest with you, I wasn’t anymore.”
Philippoussis reached his second Slam final at 2003’s Wimbledon, this after three knee operations, which is surely a credit to the resilience which his critics argue he lacked. This time his conqueror was a certain Roger Federer. “That was bittersweet. I was just so excited to be out there, I was living the dream. The opening set went to a tiebreak but it wasn’t to be. That was Roger’s first Slam and I think I created a monster that day!”
Philippoussis was sometimes coached by his father Nick who at the start of the year was reported to have suffered a stroke in a US jail following his arrest for allegedly sexually abusing two young girls he trained in California. Unsurprisingly Philippoussis won’t talk about this but despite suggestions the working relationship was a fiery one, he says of his father: “He made things better, not worse. He knew and understood me. He was the one who made me the player I was.”
A memorable quote in the often chaotic life and times of Philippoussis was credited to his father who said in 2004 that the player’s career was “going down the gurgler”. Philippoussis had plummeted 100 places in the rankings and the turmoil in his personal life had reached the front pages after breaking up with Delta Goodrem. The Neighbours actress-turned-pop star was Australia’s sweetheart and had been recovering from cancer. The split was precipitated by rumours he’d begun a relationship with It girl Paris Hilton.
Philippoussis won’t go deep into the specifics of his wild days other than to stress we shouldn’t trust every word that’s ever been written about him; that he’s happy that phase of his life is over; that he’s learned from it; that there are no regrets.
He admits the lurid publicity brought him extra pressure. “I was a private person and pretty shy before everything blew up. Playing tennis, if people wanted to write I’d had a lousy match that was okay. I totally got that, that was justified. But I wasn’t ready for [that amount of scrutiny] coming over to my personal life and I didn’t handle that well.”
Philippoussis has to concede that appearing in a US dating show called Age of Love where he was required to choose between older and younger women – “cougars” and “kittens” – probably wasn’t the best move if he’d been trying to play down the playboy image. “I was injured at the time that came up,” he says sheepishly. “It seems a whole other lifetime ago. File it under ‘experiences to be learned from’.”
Another choice quote came from Todd Woodbridge. In 2009 when Philippoussis hit financial problems, his fellow Aussie said: “Mark had a motorbike collection, a car collection, a watch collection and a woman collection. This is completely not being able to handle fortune.”
Philippoussis’ response is to insist he behaved no differently to “a lot of blokes”, although obviously his recreational budget was bigger, and to point out that as a tennis player everything he did was “magnified” beyond what actually happened. Nevertheless he admits: “If I wanted to go snowboarding in Canada, I’d round up some friends, hire a helicopter and just do it. The thing about me back then is that I wasn’t scared of anything, which I suppose is kind of scary in itself. The way I played tennis I just went for those shots and when I was on a bike I’d want to get to 130mph. Going past that was the really exciting bit.”
He wonders if the dedicated players of today might decide to whoop it after they’ve hung up their racquets and there’s a pause as we’re both doubtless trying to imagine The Fed on a Ducati striving for the ton, assuming he ever gets tired of winning Slams. “I’m glad I did what I did and that I got it all out of my system,” repeats the Scud. “Now I’m a married man and dedicated to this life. Maybe it’s quieter than the old life. Maybe when shopping for a car I can’t go buying what were basically rockets anymore and I need more boot for the family – but I’m incredibly happy right now and excited about what the next chapters are going to be.”