Mark Philippoussis was the odd man out of Australian tennis during the glory years of the late 1990s and early 2000s — embracing a lifestyle few Down Under could ever comprehend.
While Pat Rafter was spruiking Bonds undies and Lleyton Hewitt did his best impersonation of the quintessential Weet-Bix kid, Philippoussis was dating celebrities like Delta Goodrem and celebrating Davis Cup wins with shots of Patron rather than slabs of VB.
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The Scud was a serious talent on the court — making the US Open final in 1998 and the Wimbledon decider in 2003 — and a goldmine for the tabloids off it. And with stories like this, it’s not hard to see how he established a reputation as the wild child of Aussie sport who enjoyed all the trimmings that came with his fame.
Appearing on the latest edition of broadcaster Mark Howard’s podcast The Howie Games, Philippoussis provided an insight into the life of a tennis star who had it all.
An unashamed revhead, Philippoussis told Howard he would go through a new car as often as some people mow their lawn, owning everything from Mercedes to Bentleys, as well as “numerous Lamborghinis and a bunch of Ferraris”. Oh, not to mention about 15 motorbikes.
“I would get bored. I’m not exaggerating when I say I would easily go through one car a month and just change it,” Philippoussis said.
“I never kept it because it never made me happy, I was just bored.”
Living in Florida as a 20-year-old in the 1990s, training under revered American tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, Philippoussis decided it was time for a new toy. Chevrolet had just released a new Corvette and Dodge had a new Viper — so he wanted to drive the two hours to dealerships in Tampa with a friend to check them out.
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The Poo hit the road in an enormous Hummer convertible, but had trouble on slippery roads after a bit of rain. He slammed on the brakes after changing lanes when he found himself heading towards a broken down semi-trailer, and fishtailed out of control, crashing into a concrete divider and cracking it in half.
Philippoussis and his friend were both banged-up. Scud’s mate wanted to get in a taxi and head home, but the tennis star wasn’t having it.
“I go, ‘No man, screw that, I’m not going back home’,” Philippoussis told Howard. “I’m like, ‘Let’s go look at these cars, we’re just 30 minutes away’.
“So we got a taxi and looked at these cars. On one side of the street was Chevrolet and on the other side of the street was Dodge.
“I’m like, ‘Nup, I’m not taking a taxi home … I’m driving. We’re taking one of these cars home’.”
In a sign of just how confident Philippoussis was as a 20-year-old, he pitted Chevrolet and Dodge against each another, telling the dealers whichever one could have their car ready to drive off the lot first — the Corvette or the Viper — would get his money. He gave them an hour.
“You can laugh, because it’s ridiculous,” Philippoussis told Howard.
The Dodge Viper was ready in 45 minutes so Philippoussis whipped out his American Express card and shelled out $AUD100,000 for it. But here’s where you just have to shake your head and wonder what it must be like to be rich and famous.
“Long story short, the Dodge Viper was ready in 45 minutes. They detailed it and I bought the car on my American Express and I drove back home with the car but I didn’t fit in it properly, so the next day I sold it,” Philippoussis said.
“But I didn’t want to drive home in a taxi.”
At least Philippoussis can admit now paying $100,000 for a car only to sell it a day later all because he didn’t want to travel in a taxi is a “messed up story” and a “stupid thing”. Must be nice if you can get away with it though.
As Howard said: “It’s a great story because it’s given our listeners an understanding of what life is like when you can do what you want, when you want.”
SCARE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Although the world’s top tennis players have money to burn, it’s tough to openly chase lavish lifestyles while focusing on collecting trophies. Philippoussis was a trailblazer in that respect — at least in Australia, a country where we like our athletes to choose modesty over excess.
His desire to enjoy himself off the court was the result of his father’s health battles. Diagnosed with cancer when Philippoussis was in his early teens, his dad Nick beat it once only for the disease to come around again after the tennis prodigy had turned 18.
Nick — who had child rape charges against him dropped in California in late 2018 after suffering a stroke — beat cancer a second time but Philippoussis’ perspective was changed forever.
Some will say with his amount of talent and that missile-like serve, Philippoussis should have won more than he did. The truth is he worked hard but when it was time to switch off, he did that too.
“Watching someone that you love, you think they have a certain amount of time left to live, changed everything for me. And tennis seemed not so important anymore,” Philippoussis told Howard.
“It got to a stage where I realised I didn’t care about eating, sleeping, breathing tennis because my first priority in my life was always my family. I grew up that way but that took it to another level seeing someone, your father, who helped me become who I am, almost losing him to cancer. It changed everything.
“I didn’t give a crap about tennis anymore to be honest with you.”
Maybe that lack of a killer instinct is partly why Philippoussis made two major finals but never won a grand slam title. Whatever the impact, it certainly didn’t hamper him in the green and gold — famously winning deciding rubbers to claim the Davis Cup for Australia against France in 1999 and Spain in 2003.
He’s incredibly proud of those achievements, but there was more to life than tennis for Philippoussis. It’s why he could never be like Hewitt, for example, who even at 39 can’t give the sport away for good, trotting out to play doubles and passionately yelling encouragement after every point as Australia’s Davis Cup captain.
“When I was on the court, I played. When I trained, I trained hard. But as soon as that thing was over, I switched off and enjoyed my life,” Philippoussis said.
“The greats have almost no life, and that’s the reality of it. They’re obsessed, you need to be obsessed with everything about what you’re doing.
“The best example, and he’s still like that, is Lleyton Hewitt. Lleyton was obsessed with tennis, he’s still obsessed with tennis. He hasn’t switched off, everyone can see that. That’s him.
“That’s what needs to happen and that wasn’t me. It was at the start, but that wasn’t me, and I can just be honest and say that.
“When I went on court I wanted to win, I put everything in there, but I wasn’t obsessed. I switched off and I wanted to enjoy my life.”