Lifeline for Philippoussis as Popp throws away early lead

MARK Philippoussis staged a brilliant recovery last night to keep alive his hopes of reaching the semi-finals of the men’s singles at Wimbledon for the first time.

The unseeded Australian, who has lost three quarter-finals in his injury-dogged career, looked to be heading for another last-eight exit when he lost the first two sets to Germany’s Alexander Popp.

But Philippoussis, who has come back from two sets down just three times in his career, had levelled at two sets each before a fourth rain interruption ended play for the day.

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The match will resume today on Court 1, sandwiched between the quarter-final ties of Andy Roddick v Jonas Bjorkman (on first at noon) and Roger Federer v Sjeng Schalken.

The Aussie heavyweight had edged ahead 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 2-2, 30-0 by then and will be firm favourite to see off the German, who is happy to regard himself as half-British thanks to his Wolverhampton-born mother Jennifer, when the match resumes at midday today.

It was Philippoussis who was earlier cursing the weather because he had just begun to force his way back into contention after a lacklustre start when the heavens opened for the first time. He took more than an hour to feel his way into a low-key quarter-final that hung in the shadow of Tim Henman’s clash with Sebastien Grosjean on Centre Court.

Court 1 was only a little over half full at the start and the players had to contend with the distractions of a noisy Henman Hill as well as the vagaries of the British weather.

Popp, whose world ranking plummeted to 198 after a succession of injury and illness blows, seemed refreshed by the first bout of showers after he had made a nervous start to the biggest match of his disjointed career.

Philippoussis produced two aces both in excess of 120mph in his first service game while the German was forced to save four break points in a ten-minute second game.

At that stage, the only Alexander the Great was the one tattooed on the right arm of Philippoussis but those missed chances were in danger of coming back to haunt the big Australian.

He was 30-0 ahead in the third game when rain forced a hold-up of almost two hours and he lost the first three points on the resumption to concede the only break of the first set.

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Philippoussis had produced 119 aces in his previous four matches, including 46 in his fourth-round win over second seed Andre Agassi, but his big first serve deserved him for much of the first two sets.

His average dipped after finding only 16 aces in the first three sets, even though he got his serve up to 133mph.

Popp was largely content to play from the back of the court, picking off his opponent with some searing forehands down the line, and he came up with a delicious backhand pass to achieve the decisive break in the fifth game of the second set.

The match continued at a sedate pace until Popp dropped his serve for the first time in the sixth game and Philippoussis consolidated the break with the aid of a 130mph ace.

Popp, who beat No11 seed Jiri Novak in straight sets in the third round, at least managed to gain a confidence-restoring win in the first game of the fourth set before the third rain interruption.

Philippoussis quickly settled back into his groove after a two-hour delay, winning his first two service games of the fourth set to love, and achieved the first break when Popp double-faulted for the seventh time.

The Australian dropped just two points on his serve in the fourth set and, increasing in confidence with every game, quickly won it 6-3 to take the match into a decider.

Popp stopped the rot by holding onto his serve early in the fifth set but the momentum by then had clearly swung the way of his opponent.

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Wimbledon favourite Roddick suffered a day of frustration on the sidelines yesterday as his quarter-final match against Jonas Bjorkman was delayed until today.

It is the first instance of any disruption to Roddick’s campaign, with the American having enjoyed a comfortable passage to the last eight, dropping just one set against Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan in the fourth round.

The delay was better news for fourth seed Roger Federer of Switzerland and eighth seed Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, who were given an unexpected extra day to shake off niggling injuries ahead of their quarter-final tie.

Federer suffered a back injury during the warm-up prior to his straight-sets fourth round win over Feliciano Lopez, and Schalken had a recurrence of a long-standing foot injury.