2 little guys playing big at the Open

September 06, 1995|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Michael Chang and Byron Black are the water bugs of the U.S. Open. You can see them darting left and right, tracking down every lob, every crosscourt passing shot, every bullet down the line.

Chang is the little American who could. He doesn't have a serve as big as the serve Pete Sampras has. He doesn't have the ground strokes that Andre Agassi has. And he doesn't have Jim Courier's size. But every player going on the court against him knows they are going to have to be on their game every moment, that they are going to have to beat Michael Chang, because Michael Chang is not going to beat himself.

U.S. Open opponents are learning the same lessons about Black.

Black is from Zimbabwe. He grew up playing barefoot on grass courts built by his father in the middle of their 235-acre avocado farm. He grew up hitting two-handed backhands and forehands because he was too little to control the racket with one hand. And though he has grown to be about Chang's size, he still uses two hands, cutting down his reach even further.

They are the little men of the U.S. Open who are staying alive with foot speed, conditioning and guile.

Yesterday, they used all their assets to advance to the quarterfinals.

Chang, the No. 5 seed, did it with a 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Australian Michael Tebbutt on the Stadium Court. Black, unseeded and ranked No. 70, did it with a stunning five-set victory over No. 8 seed and last year's Open runner-up Michael Stich, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3.

Chang will next play Courier, a 6-3, 6-0, 7-6 (7-4) winner over No. 3 Thomas Muster, while Black takes on No. 2 seed Pete Sampras, a 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-4 over No. 15 Todd Martin.

"I was in complete control of that match going into the fifth set," said a stunned Stich. "I was confident, maybe overconfident, and I played a loose game -- one loose game. A double fault, a missed easy volley and he played a lucky lob, let us say, from a volley that bounced on the line. I made those mistakes. I gave it to him. But he was the one who hung in and was there to take advantage of it. He had to serve and hold his serve; that speaks for good mental condition."

Black has been a shooting star. He has never done so well or gone so far in a Grand Slam event. Heck, until winning the Bombay Challenger this year, he had never won a singles tournament, and until this U.S. Open he had never made it beyond the third round of any Grand Slam in singles.

"Last year, I concentrated on becoming a top doubles player and I made it to No. 1," he said, recalling the performance that included a French Open title with Jonathan Stark. "This year I really wanted to try to get my singles ranking first inside the top 50 and maybe better."

ATP Tour officials said last night that, no matter what happens to Black in the quarterfinals, he will have at least achieved that goal with his performance here. His upset of No. 9 seed Thomas Enqvist and No. 26 Jonas Bjorkman and now Stich will move him up to at least 50th and perhaps even farther.

"Growing up in Zimbabwe, tennis was not a big sport," said Black, who is only the second player from Zimbabwe to ever make it to the quarterfinals here. Andrew Pattison did it in 1975, when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia.

"Tennis is kind of a rich man's sport there," said Black. "Soccer is the main sport. My father is a farmer, but he played at Wimbledon [making the third round in 1953 and 1956] and brought tennis to myself and my brother and my sister. I think he and my mother and all of Harare [the Zimbabwean capital] will be pumped up by my winning today."

In fact, there has been a lot for the Blacks to cheer. Byron and his brother Wayne, who both went to the University of Southern California, make up Zimbabwe's Davis Cup team. Sister Cara won the Wimbledon junior girls' doubles title this year and is on Zimbabwe's Fed Cup team.

There has been a lot for Michael Chang to get excited about too.

He has moved up from No. 6 last year to No. 5 this year. He is one of just seven players to manage a victory over No. 1 Andre Agassi this season. And he has found a way to make himself play bigger.

Workouts have made him physically stronger, hard work on his serve has given him a weapon that now registers over 120 mph and a longer racket has helped his reach, and that in turn has taken some pressure off his backhand.

"I don't think I physically want to grow any taller because I think that would make me slower on the court," Chang said. "But to grow racket-wise and to develop a better serve, it makes me think I've grown taller."

Chang has lost only two sets in the entire tournament, but this is where the U.S. Open generally gets dangerous for water bugs. Over the past four years, Chang has lost to the eventual champion. Tomorrow, he and Black will have to be especially quick to avoid being stepped on.

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