07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS MARK PHILIPPOUSSIS STARTS hitting practice shots at Nick Bollettieri's tennis center in Bradenton, Fla., the courtside bleachers rapidly fill with ponytailed girls, who whisper and giggle as the lanky 19-year-old blisters his ground strokes. Philippoussis is unseeded at this week's Wimbledon, but he could easily become the sport's next big heartthrob.
His world tennis ranking may not be far behind. Owner of an almost unseeable 133 mph serve, at its fastest, Philippoussis, nicknamed Scud, has rocketed from 304th in the world last year to 31st, making him the youngest player in tennis's Top 50. Since age 14, says the 6'4", 200-pounder, "I've just worked on hitting everything as hard as I possibly can."
Growing up in Melbourne, the younger child of Greek and Italian immigrants, Mark started playing tennis with his father, Nick, 47, when he was 6. At 9, Nick increased the intensity of his focus, even though, says Mark, "I really wanted to be a soccer player." The decision paid off. That year Mark was a finalist in his first two junior tournaments and won the third.
Philippoussis's talent was all but unnoticed by the tennis public until last January, when he stunned top-seeded Pete Sampras in the third round at the Australian Open. "I didn't have a sniff of getting a serve back," Sampras said afterward. Philippoussis—who lost his next match—nonetheless received a huge boost from the Sampras win. "My goal this year is to get into the Top 20, and I think I can do it," he says.
Coaching guru Bollettieri, who has worked with Andre Agassi and Philippoussis's idol, Boris Becker, and until recently worked with Mark, says, "He's a big animal, but he needs to be nurtured like a young colt."
Those ponytailed fans would be happy to help.