NEW YORK -- No. 2 seed Michael Chang looked into a mirror last night, and it appeared that Marcelo Rios, the man looking back, would refuse to break.
No one really expected it to be this hard, though maybe they should have allowed for Chang's penchant for five-setters. No one expected the huge crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium on this cold September night to get heatedly involved, either.
Why would they? The American Chang had never lost even one set to Rios in four previous meetings. But last night, Chang was tense, playing for the right to advance toward the one prize he would treasure more than any other -- the U.S. Open championship. And Rios was playing to keep his breakthrough run alive.
"Records mean nothing at the Open," Chang said and meant it, as he pulled out the five-set victory, 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, while the Chileans in the crowd chanted and waved flags for Rios and the Americans yelled "USA! USA!"
"Today was definitely a fight," said Chang, standing through his post-match interview to avoid leg cramps. "Taking things point by point, trying to claw my way back into the game. I was lucky Marcelo's one break point went wide. I've always had tough matches against Marcelo. I was just a couple points better.
"I would have thought that Marcelo would get frustrated and start making errors after the first two sets, but he hung tough and didn't give me anything. It was extremely close."
Chang had been up two sets to love, when Rios started his Chang-like comeback to extend the confrontation for another set and then another and still one more. He did it by leaving the baseline for some net work and then dropping back again, mixing up his style of play and constantly looking for a way to counter Chang's off-speed returns.
Neither of them was going to run out of legs.
The winning point finally came on Chang's crosscourt forehand that landed solidly in the corner behind Rios. But Rios insisted later that the turning point came in the first set. He had broken Chang in the third game of that first set, when Chang popped a volley into the net. Rios held that advantage only three more games, until Chang cashed a break point with a cracking backhand down the line.
"I was up a break, and I didn't win that set," he said. "That's the important game. If I get that first set, the score maybe will be totally different. But Michael is a great player. Really hard for everybody. He plays really good from the baseline, and he runs [down] every ball."
For Chang's trouble he will get No. 13 seed Patrick Rafter in his half of tomorrow's men's semifinals. Rafter, who is said to be playing perhaps the best tennis in this tournament, advanced earlier in the day with a 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-2 victory over Magnus Larsson.
"Playing Chang will be a good matchup," said Rafter. "We have had some good matches. His game is a return of service sort of game and he's quite aggressive from the baseline. Mine is that I'm going to attack him at all opportunities. It makes for some fun tennis."
In the men's other semifinal tomorrow, Greg Rusedski and Jonas Bjorkman are to meet to round out the finalists for Sunday's championship match.
For Chang and Rios, it really was like playing the mirror's image. They are both about 5 feet 9 with dark hair. Each slugged from the baseline and then demonstrated his all-court ability and agility by running after killer drop volleys. Chang actually left skid marks, as he slid several feet after running from behind the baseline to reach a Rios crosscourt drop volley and stabbing a forehand volley winner.
"I knew it would be tough against Marcelo," Chang said. "It was an unbelievable match. It really could have gone either way. I knew Marcelo wouldn't quit."
Today, the two women's finalists will be determined in back-to-back afternoon matches. First it will be the 16-year-old veteran and No. 1 in the world Martina Hingis attempting to advance to her fourth Grand Slam final of the season against No. 6 Lindsay Davenport, who is one of just two women to beat Hingis this year, but who is making her first Grand Slam semifinal appearance.
In the second semifinal, American sensation Venus Williams will try to keep her dream alive against the much improved No. 11 seed Irina Spirlea of Romania. Both are appearing in their first Grand Slam semifinals.
And Williams, 17, is the first woman to reach the Open semifinal in her debut since Pam Shriver in 1978. She is also the first African-American woman to go this far since Zina Garrison Jackson in 1989.
"It's almost poetic that Venus should have her breakthrough at the opening of the stadium that's named for Arthur Ashe," said Shriver, who made it to the 1978 final before losing to Chris Evert, 7-6, 6-4. "Any player who makes it to the semifinal can win the tournament. But I don't think she will, unless Davenport can beat Hingis. Hingis is the class of the field, but if Davenport can beat her, then Venus has a chance."
But, Shriver adds, Williams will have to play "her best game yet," to get past Spirlea, 23, who as No. 12 in the world has a well-balanced game and has been playing terrific tennis.
NOTE: In the first match of the day, the sixth-seeded team of Rick Leach and Manon Bollegraf won the Open's mixed-doubles championship with a come-from-behind, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) decision over Pablo Albano and Mercedes Paz.
Patrick Rafter (13), Australia, def. Magnus Larsson, Sweden, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-2. Michael Chang (2), Henderson, Nev., def. Marcelo Rios (10), Chile, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3.
Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti, Sweden (11), def. Wayne Black, Zimbabwe, and Jim Grabb, Tucson, Ariz., 7-5, 7-6 (7-4).
Lindsay Davenport, Newport Beach, Calif., and Jana Novotna, Czech Republic (3), def. Martina Hingis, Switzerland, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Spain (2), 6-4, 6-3.
Pub Date: 9/05/97