Hard graft not enough for Rafter to stop Philippoussis

Hong Kong, AFP

Mark Philippoussis rained down 14 aces – including one on match point – to claim victory Saturday in an all-Australian semi-final at the US$375,000 Hong Kong Open over Patrick Rafter 7-6 (7/2), 6-4. The seventh seed from Melbourne was dominant in his one-hour, 36-minute defeat of the popular two-time finalist. Philippoussis will on Sunday face German third seed Nicolas Kiefer, who knocked out Briton Tim Henman 6-2, 6-4 in a clinical display at Victoria Park.

Philippoussis and Kiefer both claimed their only titles of the season last February, the Australian in San Jose and Kiefer winning Dubai. Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion, had won all three of his previous meetings against his former Davis Cup teamamte. But the loser said that he felt the effects of a series of draining matches earlier in the week. “I was flat and a little tired,” said the popular 27-year-old. “You’ve got to be sharp against Mark and I wasn’t. He had the big shots at the right time.” An optimistic Rafter added that he was pleased with his Hong Kong effort. “It’s amazing how hard work pays off,” he said of his last few weeks before and during the Sydney Games. Rafter lost finals here in 1994 and 1997 to Michael Chang, whom Henman put out in the quarter-finals Friday night. The second-seeded Briton said his previous exertions may have contributed to his own defeat against the fresher Kiefer. “I struggled, all credit to Kiefer,” said Henman. “He served well on the big points. I don’t think I got a look-in on his serve at all. I can’t have many regrets, he just played better. I was a step slower today, maybe due to my match last night.” Henman said he will leave Hong Kong for the start of the European indoor season in Vienna next week with more confidence. “I have three wins under my belt, that’s good for the indoor season.” The Briton’s quest for an end to his two year title drought now continues. Henman got off to a poor start and never recovered against the third seed. Kiefer prevailed in 90 minutes as he pounced on Henman, forcing the Briton to errors and breaking him once in the first set and twice in the forgettable second. Kiefer hopes he began a German victory chain-reaction on this weekend featuring the Germany England World Cup qualifier which closes down Wembley stadium, and Michael Schumacher’s chance to clinch the Formula One championships with a win at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix. “It could be a big weekend,” said Kiefer. “Today, Kiefer-Henman, Kiefer wins. Of course, Germany will win the football. And Schumi has big chances as well.”