Put to the test, Chang passes Spadea Overcoming leg cramps, No. 2 seed latest favorite to rally for victory

September 01, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Michael Chang's face is pinched. His jaw set. His eyes pained. This is Chang, not in the heat of his 6-4, 5-7, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Vince Spadea. This is Chang, the No. 2 seed, when it is over.

This is Chang trying to find a comfort zone: unable to sit down; unable to stop pacing.

"It's been a really long match and I think, if I sit, my body will shut down," said Chang, who advanced to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open yesterday. "It's very easy to tense up and sometimes cramp. I've learned that the hard way, so I'm just avoiding it altogether."

The last seed left in the bottom quarter of the draw, Chang next will face Jakob Hlasek, a 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 winner yesterday, for a berth in the quarterfinals.

This city is one of the fashion capitals of the world, and at this Open it has become fashionable for the top seeds to get into trouble and then pull the great escape. That is the good news for the Open, because if this Grand Slam had gone the way other tournaments have this summer, the Open by this time would be fully depleted of characters.

Top seed Pete Sampras pulled an escape two days ago. No. 6 Andre Agassi did it three days ago, saying coyly, "I decided to hang around." No. 1 women's seed Steffi Graf has had worrisome moments in every match.

Yesterday, it was Chang's turn, and it was compelling. Spadea, 22, who ranks 69th in the world, had a two-sets-to-one lead and was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set when Chang began his charge.

He broke Spadea in that game, 40-love, to start a run of 11 straight points that would propel him to a 7-5 victory and force a fifth set.

By the time Chang had blasted a forehand passing shot down the line on his second match point, these two had played for three hours, 49 minutes. It was like the end of a heavyweight fight, with Spadea spent and Chang, pained by cramps, slowly lifting his arms to heaven in thankful celebration.

"Vince was making great stab volleys, just coming up with huge shots," Chang said. "I really felt like the Lord pulled me through. You know, I was very tired in that fifth set. It's just kind of hard to explain. You're out there and you're really tired and you just go out and try. Some shots you're just not able to get to -- to be honest with you, I really don't know how I was able to win this match."

It was a battle of wills. And when it comes to wills, Chang is legendary. Last week, when Sampras was asked what he could use to make his game better, he said, "Agassi's return of serve and Chang's heart."

Certainly, Spadea must have known what he was up against. He said he realized that he would have to hit the same kind of shots at 5-4 in the fourth or fifth set that he hit at 1-0 in the first.

If Chang could find even a keyhole to look through, he would somehow wiggle through it.

"In all the matches I play, if I'm down in a match and if I'm down match point, or I'm down and a guy is serving for it, I don't cut myself out," said Chang.

"I think that's very important for me. If I cut myself out mentally, I'm going to lose for sure," said Chang. "I know there are going to be times when I'm not going to be able to come back. But I know there are other times when I am. You have to allow yourself to believe in that chance.

"I think for me it's just going out and not worrying about the situation, not being absorbed by it, just going out and playing each point because points turn into games, games into sets, sets into matches. A match as tough as today's is just not over until the last point is hit."

It didn't matter that Chang started to cramp. It didn't matter that he was connecting on just 35 percent of his serves, that he double-faulted 13 times, or that he had been broken nine times.

It didn't matter that Spadea was serving for the match in the fourth set and playing some of the best tennis of his young life, hitting volleys, said Chang, "like he was Stefan Edberg or somebody."

All that mattered when there were just four points between Chang and defeat was that the match wasn't over.

"I was trying to focus on serving out the match," Spadea said. "But I missed a volley. I wanted to be aggressive, but maybe I overdid it and that kind of set me back. I backed off to the other extreme. I was trying to focus, but that's not easy to do against Chang, [even] if you're playing out in Central Park and no one is watching."

Yesterday, everyone was watching, and when it was over and Chang was pacing, nonstop in a four-foot space, everyone could see that this time, it wasn't easy for Michael Chang, either.

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Singles, third round

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